Few of us in the crowd could catch our breath during The Book of Mormon, which was staged to a Friday-night full house in Perth’s Crown Theatre. Though most of us undoubtedly came forewarned, there was barely a moment when we weren’t cackling in delirious glee or gasping at no-holds-barred spoofs (and frequently both at once). But really, who could hold out against a bawdy onslaught of frog sex jokes, scrotum maggots, and other much more unprintable wackiness?
One of Broadway’s longest-running musicals, The Book of Mormon is the madcap masterpiece of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Robert Lopez of Avenue Q fame. Its 2011 debut took New York by storm; since then, it’s gone on an award-winning rampage through the US, Europe, and Australia, trailing smashed box office records and rave reviews in its wake. Now, Base Entertainment Asia is in talks to bring the comedy to Singapore for the very first time (fingers crossed!)
Part raucous parody, part coming-of-age story, The Book of Mormon follows two young Latter Day Saints on their virgin mission to Uganda. Elder Price is the Mormon with the mostest, an egotist who fantasizes about doing something so incredible it’ll “blow God’s freaking mind”. Meanwhile, the hapless Elder Cunningham has never actually read the Book of Mormon, and happily makes up his own brand of dogma. Clad in blindingly white shirts and salesman-slick smiles, the mismatched duo head down for some heathen conversion in Africa, a faraway land which they’re sure will be just like The Lion King… right?
As much as this musical is wickedly fond of its scriptural spoofs and genital gags, this isn’t the sacrilegious production you might imagine it to be. Indeed, it’s not ultimately about religion at all. When an apparently profane comedy has had three sold-out runs in Salt Lake City (aka Mormon capital) and amassed gleeful converts from Norway to New York, you know you’ve got something rather special on your hands – something that cuts to the idealistic heart of humanity, whatever your culture or creed.
Fresh and shocking, the musical is like a bucket of cold water on our privileged world of voluntourism and Disney-like visions of Africa. The Ugandans whom our naïve, first-world heroes attempt to ‘save’ have very real poverty to contend with. They have AIDS. They have conflicts about female genital mutilation. They have their lives threatened by despotic warlords. One poor soul has maggots in his scrotum, for chrissakes. It’s a deliciously scathing send-up of do-gooders fuelled by noble feelings but little understanding of others’ needs – even as it’s ultimately forgiving towards the power of sincere belief to build a better world.
Social issues aside, what makes this Broadway bible so immortal is, quite simply, its darn catchy acts. Australian tenor Blake Bowden plays Elder Price to eager-beaver perfection, with a clear voice and a winning mix of smugness and innocence. His co-star Nyk Bielak brings a terrific dose of heart and humour as Elder Cunningham, blossoming from screwball sidekick to plucky hero with much panache. Alongside them, Tigist Strode delivers a luminous and poignant performance as Nabulungi, the feisty village girl drawn by the duo’s portrayals of a promised land. Meanwhile, the chorus line offers a stellar backup, pulling off electric dance numbers and toe-tapping tunes that have still got us humming weeks after.
Pitch-perfect in both satire and soundtrack, The Book of Mormon more than lives up to its giddy hype. If and when it hits Singapore’s shores, we’d happily make a repeat pilgrimage – and that’s saying something.
The Book of Mormon Perth played from 3 September to 17 November 2019 at Crown Theatre, Crown Perth, Great Eastern Hwy, Burswood WA 6100, Australia.
All images courtesy of Jeff Busby