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A CurtainUp London Review
The Book of Mormon
It is good to know that satire is alive and well on the stage. The incredulous mythology that underpins the Mormon religion is ripe for an irreverential laugh with the wonderful story about the message handed down on golden plates and the legend about the Garden of Eden being somewhere near Jackson, Missouri.
Jesus appears early on with magnificently coiffed golden waves and a costume that is excitingly delineated by strip lighting. Then, with their chests sticking out jauntily, each Mormon missionary practises their doorbell speech to the uninitiated. In "Hello" they bring the message of eternal life, conventionally dressed, wearing white shirts with black ties and black trousers, they brim over with enthusiasm and energy and dreams about where they will be posted to recruit for the church.
We meet the key characters played by American actors, the conventional Elder Price (Gavin Creel) and the quirky, misfit Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner). Paired together, they get a nightmare of a mission to Uganda.
The Book of Mormon's version of Uganda is not Africa as we know it but a send up of the sanitised Africa of The Lion King, with gun toting warlords, women threatened with female circumcision and the rape of babies practised to cure AIDs. Some of this feels pretty close to the bone. I saw several in the audience grimace with embarrassment when Elder Cunningham describes Nabulungi (Alexia Khadime) as the kind of "hot shade of black" he really finds attractive, ("she's just like a latte").
"Hasa Diga Eebowai" is a skit on The Lion King's "Hakuna Matata", the idea that repetition of a simple phrase can make everything better. The humour may be a tad "in your face" for the politically correct generation and for the allegedly more sensitive Brits.
One of the best songs in the show, "Turn It Off" advocates amongst other things that men with gay tendencies should put those feelings in a box and turn them off. When the lights go down, the chorus quickly change into pink sequinned waistcoats and a spontaneous tap dance follows. No, not at all gay! What Trey Parker and Matt Stone are satirising is the idea that gay inclinations can be "turned off".
Much of the wit in The Book of Mormon encourages us to laugh at Elder Cunningham's interweaving the popular culture of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and into another version of religion. What is satirised here is the unbelievability of all ironically named belief systems. They only work given faith, an unquestioning belief.
I was completely won over by Casey Nicholaw's energetic and joyous company choreography. I loved Gavin Creel's ambitious and a little self absorbed Elder Price, "You and Me but Mostly Me!" Jared Gertner clings to his partner Elder Price desperately as he looks for a best friend. There is a running joke on Navulungi's name as Arnold Cunningham struggles to remember it and comes up with lots of other long 'N' words instead like Neutrogena. They work the horsemeat joke into the script for the UK. Giles Terera is a terrific tribesman and Alexia Khadime has a beautiful voice for her solo numbers.
The Second Act opens with a big Hollywood number in Hell, brilliantly lit and extravagantly red costumed. It really is Hell, peopled by the sick imagination of people like Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer and Starbucks. The lyrics are always cheeky and I especially enjoyed the cheesy, "I Am Africa". How excellent to work in, "We are the tears of Nelson Mandela". The music may be slightly derivative but it is essentially hummable.
It is endearing isn't it to see how something so zany and off the wall can be a big Broadway hit. I think The Book of Mormon will charm London audiences for quite some time.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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