You no longer have to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to worship The Book of Mormon. Ever since Matt Stone and Trey Parker (of South Park fame) brought their musical of the same name to Broadway in 2011, the highly irreverent, ruthlessly satirical and disarmingly sweet show has amassed its own fanatical cult. But for most Torontonians, the touring production currently playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre is the first chance they will have to experience what has been widely hailed as the musical-theatre equivalent of the Second Coming (or perhaps Third Coming is more appropriate, since Mormons believe the second one already happened a couple thousand years ago in upstate New York, and yes, there’s a song about that).
The Book of Mormon tells the story of Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, two naive but enthusiastic Mormon missionaries who are surprised when their church sends them to a war-torn, AIDS-stricken and desperately poor village in Uganda. Elder Price, a type-A LDS hunk with somewhat messianic delusions of grandeur, is flummoxed by the task of converting the local Ugandans and pines for his dream mission to Orlando, Florida.
Meanwhile Elder Cunningham, a socially challenged compulsive liar, is thrilled to be taking a trip with his “new best friend” and finds that the Mormon mythos goes down easier with the locals after a few creative embellishments. Along the way, they make friends with Nabulungi, a bright young woman who wants a different future than the one her village holds for her, and cross paths with General Butt-Fucking-Naked, a crazed local warlord who wants to circumcise all the women in the community. Yes, this is a musical where plot points include cliterodectomy and AIDS in Africa. Its comedy is sometimes pitch black, but The Book of Mormon pulls off an incredible balancing act of razor-sharp satire mixed with genuine human emotion and insight into the human condition.
Many of the musical numbers rely on a large and talented ensemble, and fortunately, this touring production definitely has one. As for the leads, Mark Evans and Christopher John O’Neill have great chemistry as, respectively, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, and Evans has an impressive set of pipes. But the real standout of the cast has to be Samantha Marie Ware, as Nabulungi, who just kills the show’s I Wish Ballad “Sal Tlay Ka Siti.” You might leave the theatre humming that one, along with dynamite opening number “Hello,” and perhaps also “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” a scathing rebuttal to The Lion King‘s “Hakuna Matata.”
Does The Book of Mormon live up to the hype? Absolutely, even if it has its flaws. Important-seeming Act One characters like Nabulungi’s father Mafala and glass-closeted-gay Elder McKinley all but vanish in Act Two. The evil General Butt-Fuckin-Naked is defeated a little too easily. And while the musical numbers ably ape the Disney movie house style, they aren’t all as hummable as “A Whole New World.” But when you get to experience something as sublime as “Joseph Smith American Moses,” where the Ugandan villagers perform a play Nabulungi has written based on The Book of Mormon as explained to them by Elder Cunningham – who just may have inserted references to Star Wars, hobbits and sex with frogs – the flaws of the show simply evaporate. And while you may not see stagecraft to rival the visual splendour of The Lion King, you will get several pointed reminders about how empty and apolitical that spectacle was. It’s exciting to see a musical this funny and entertaining that’s also incredibly smart.
The Book of Mormon
Runs until Sun, June 9
Princess of Wales Theatre