A musical about African missionaries trying to convert villagers living under the rule of an oppressive dictator and the threats of female circumcision, AIDS and dysentery doesn’t exactly sound like a laugh-a-minute theatrical experience – more like the sort of up its own arse worthy angst-fest you might find in a free show at the Edinburgh Festival, being performed in the back room of a pub to a couple of confused tourists and a student sleeping off his hangover from the night before.
Oh ye of little faith. The Book of Mormon is the best show I have seen in YEARS.
A massive Broadway hit, the show has just said “hello” to London, and is now into its second week of previews before formally opening on 21st March. Having picked up on the buzz around the show during a trip to New York in 2011, I booked a couple of tickets for the London previews as soon as they went on sale. Smart move. The show is now virtually sold out until the end of the current booking period (August 2013).
Before seeing the show, I had listened to the Broadway cast recording a few times. The music parodies a number of musical styles, with one song, ‘You and Me (but mostly me)’ very obviously borrowing from fellow Broadway sensation, Wicked! There are hints of plenty of other shows and styles but none of this detracts from what is a brilliant original score in classic musical tradition.
As a fan of ‘South Park’ and somebody who finds swearing funny (yes, I know. It’s not big or clever. But it’s FUNNY so indulge me), I had a lot of love for the more outrageous songs on the cast recording. ‘Lion King’ homage ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ and ‘Joseph Smith, American Moses’ in particular contain language that you probably don’t want to have to explain to your mum. Before seeing the show, my juvenile little brain knew these would be highlights.
And yes they were, but they weren’t the stand-out highlights. These came from some of the other songs that, while they are catchy and entertaining on a CD, really come into their own with the absolutely fantastic choreography and staging that goes with them. The opening number is slick and very funny and sets the tone for the show. A song and dance number involving a group of tap dancing Mormon missionaries brings the house down. And Act Two’s ‘Spooky Mormon Hell Dream’ has so much going on that I think I’d have to see the show at least another three times to properly take it all in.
The two leading roles are currently played by actors who have previously performed in the US tour (and in the case of Jared Gertner, also on Broadway). They are slick, polished and hilarious. The UK cast who join them on stage are every bit as impressive – West End regular, Alexia Khadime (Wicked!, Lion King) plays Nabulungi and has a stand out ballad extolling the virtues of Salt Lake City (Sal Tlay Ka Siti), her promised land.
The principal roles are to die for but this is definitely a strong ensemble show – Mormons, villagers and warlord henchmen are all clearly loving every minute of it.
If I had to offer any sort of criticism, it would be to suggest that perhaps the orchestra was slightly overpowering at times, so the sound balance needs a bit of attention, and I did feel that Gavin Creel (Elder Price) was ever so slightly straining on some of his top notes. But given the sheer brilliance of the rest of his performance, and the show in general, these do not need to be forgiven as they are points so minor that they become irrelevant when you look at the bigger picture.
In the interval, the bar was absolutely heaving and it took me the majority of the break to cross it to get to the merchandise stand (a wise plan – if I’d waited until after the show I’d probably still be queuing now, such was the demand). The bar staff said they didn’t think they’d ever taken so much money. The audience was full of people who already knew the show – so the atmosphere had the same sort of excited anticipation you’d expect to feel in Rome when they announce the next Pope. Probably. It’s rare that the announcement that a show will start in one minute gets a cheer. But this is the kind of crowd that was there for Mormon’s first Saturday night in London.
We sat in the middle of the Circle and I can’t help but feel we had a better view than some seats in the Stalls. It’s a busy stage with so much going on that looking down on it gives you a fantastic vantage point to take it all in. I’m sure some people will swear that the only place to see the show is from the Stalls seats. This is something I’m going to have to find out for myself as it gives me a perfect excuse to go again.
If you are easily offended by use of bad language and controversial subject matter then this isn’t the show for you. If you have an open mind and are prepared to look beyond the shocks on the surface, then this is a show with real heart, an uplifting message and some of the best direction I’ve seen in ages. Two days later and I’m still grinning as if I’ve just been baptised for the very first time.
Book a ticket. But make sure you leave one for me.