Book, Music & Lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone
Directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker
The New York Times described The Book of Mormon as ‘The Best Musical of the Century’ for its ingenuity, shrewd lyrics, and ability to cut at throats others in the genre would never dream of, let alone stage. And even after revisions to tastefully tackle the grotesquely (though intentional) stereotyped characters and to elevate the black performer’s agency, The Book of Mormon continues to be one of the highest drawing and most engaging pieces of musical theatre. While it may no longer feel like the Best Musical of the Century, it is one of the most fascinating and divisive, and we suspect the producers wouldn’t want it any other way.
Initially, the narrative relaxes on the budding misplacement of two missionaries from the Church of Latter Day Saints – Elder Price, a flawless and promised child who believes if he prays hard enough, the golden lands of Orlando await him and Elder Cunningham, who is everything Price isn’t. But these missionaries don’t find themselves in the middle-class glitz of Florida. Nor do they remain within the States. No, Elders Price and Cunningham find themselves jetting off to the distant land of Uganda, where they embark on their missionaries’ task to baptise and spread the word of The Book of Mormon; they’ll all the help the good lord can send.
God have mercy on you. God have mercy on us all… Because you will laugh, and you rightly feel dirty for doing so. It’s that rare laughter that Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone are known for from their works with South Park and Avenue Q, that obscene and caught-off-guard snigger which escapes before the brain has time to process the nature of the jokes. It’s encouraged as the performers want crowds to feel sinful, to feel they require someone to tell them it’s all okay – and who better than leading performers Robert Colvin and Conner Peirson to help guide us through these difficult times?
The pair are clear-cut for their roles; Colvin’s chiselled jaw could cut concrete and Cunningham a nervous ball of self-conscious energy. Peirson has more to work with in the script, given the impact his character’s imagination has on the villagers and the Mormon President. The energy on display is astonishing, and exhausting to watch as Peirson and fellow performer Jordan Lee Davies skitter around the stage to Casey Nicholaw’s choreography.
Nabulungi, the young daughter of the de-facto village leader and optimist, has a more significant presence in the revised production, taking an ounce more autonomy in the production’s latter half. Something Aviva Tulley rolls with as they push themselves vocally to stand out from much of the cast in her solo reprise of Hasa Diga Eebowai (We’ll let you do the translation). Though their duets with Peirson’s Elder Cunningham make for a standout pair the audiences find easy to follow and form an attachment for.
The Book of Mormon has always faced an eternal uphill struggle with the one-factor revisions, rewrites and character agency cannot overcome: audiences. There will always be a selection of crowds for who Book of Mormon doesn’t sit right – and they’re correct to feel this way. The production’s depiction of Ugandan culture is purposefully monumentally flawed, both in its original text and revised. But its lampooning of white saviour narratives and westernised anti-African ethos is almost a touch too clever for general crowds. So, in a peculiarly rare plea to audiences, if you are easily offended or find the nature of racial and culturally based humour to be off-putting – take care. But if you can bite your cheek and embrace the utter obscenity, then you are in for one of, if not the, best musical treat in Edinburgh this year.
For any doubtful, the production shines within the show’s second half, with a particularly obscenely fabulous trip to Spooky Mormon Hell which glitters and glistens with Ann Roth’s costume design, which thus far has played mainly into the hands of the clean-cut Elder’s. Unshackled in the dreamscape of hell, Roth’s spandex fantasies evirate some of history’s most notorious monsters, with a side-ordering of Starbucks chucked in for good measure. But it’s also where many of the villagers come into their own, this promised sense of agency and autonomy is more obvious as Ewan Cummins and Thomas Vernal thunder across the stage, their comedic timing pinpoint, with Cummin’s enthusiastic vocals a welcome return.
As Scott Pask’s scenic design whisks audiences from the prestigious stain-glass realms of the Latter-Day Saints to the slowly cobbled and ramshackle huts and shelters in Uganda, and even into the depths of despair and depravity in hell, The Book of Mormon takes a much more intelligent journey than first thought. It is a remarkable piece of musical theatre, in a category so few dare to share. Its morose and grotesque humour and language do belay a sense of razor commentary, but cracks resist. And these cracks cannot be paved over and instead embraced within the production. A production which is cut-throat with its comedy, composed to the highest of standards, with satire that continues to ring through theatres.
And remember, if you do end up in Spooky Mormon Hell for enjoying the show, you’re in good company with the rest of us.
Cut-Throat Comedy Worth The Trip To Hell.
The Book of Mormon runs at the Edinburgh Playhouse until October 8th.
Tickets for which may be obtained here.
Photo Credit – Paul Coltas