The Book of Mormon has been something of a critical and commercial sensation. Its breakout success stems not just from the fact it’s a highly entertaining and effective show; but because it holds appeal for people (like me) who would ordinarily never even consider going to see a musical. A musical satire about religion and Mormonism, written by the creators of South Park? Sign me up.
The show has been running in London’s West End since 2013 (since 2011 in Broadway), but we only just got round to finally seeing it last week. The show’s immense popularity means that getting cheap tickets is a challenge. We managed to get tickets to an evening performance for just under £40 each, which may seem dear but is actually a bargain for a major show in the West End.
Without giving too much away, the plot revolves around two young Mormon missionaries, Elders Price and Cunningham, who are dispatched to Uganda to try and recruit people to the Church. Price and Cunningham are typical odd couple material: Price is driven, charismatic, highly competent, and self-regarding, while Cunningham is socially obnoxious, lazy, ineffective, and insecure. Both of them find it hard going initially in Uganda, where the local population lives under conditions of crushing oppression and poverty. Serious themes, including AIDS and FGM, figure prominently in the plot, and the presence of such themes in a comedy will not be to everyone’s taste–this is from the writers of South Park, after all. However, on the whole there is no question where the writers’ sympathies lie, and any suggestions of racism and so on are wide of the mark.
The Book of Mormon is very funny and entertaining. The songs are good fun, and often work in some outrageous humour that provoked howls of laughter from the audience. As in South Park, the script pokes fun at many of the more absurd tenets of the Mormon faith, and indeed some sections were extremely reminiscent of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s more famous creation. But the music and dancing is top-notch, and it’s an unusual pleasure to be able to enjoy such stellar visual production fused with what is at times an unbelievably foul-mouthed and crude comedy. The highlights for me were clustered in the section just after the intermission, especially the ‘Spooky Mormon Hell Dream’ song.
The main performances are very impressive. One thing that bothered me slightly at the beginning was Elder Cunningham’s really OTT use of a silly voice and screaming; while I get that it is meant to convey an irritating personality, it should be possible to do that without irritating the audience. On the whole, though, the aesthetics of the show were outstanding. My only real criticism–which is really just an observation–is that in the end the show is just entertainment, and doesn’t really have much in the way of lasting dramatic or emotional resonance. I interpreted the message of the play to be that religion can play a positive role in people’s lives, even with its manifest absurdities; which is fine as far as it goes, but rather shallow. Still, if you get the chance to see The Book of Mormon, it’s not something you should try and deconstruct too deeply: just relax and enjoy yourself.