The Prince of Wales Theatre. Saturday, 26th November, 2016.
‘The Book of Mormon’ proved to be everything we’d heard it would be. It was funny, shocking, fiery and definitely, definitely ‘not for the faint-hearted’. The show is the creation of ‘South Park’ creators Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone – and I’ve only ever seen a few clips of that show, so I had very few expectations…but the creative team, including choreographer Casey Nicholaw, music supervisor and vocal arranger Stephen Oremus and Directors Trey Parker and Casey Nicholaw, among others have created something very unique with this show. First impressions told me that this would be a funny West End show stopper first, and a rafter ringing musical second, but actually, the two were intertwined very early on, much to my stunned and confused amazement. I didn’t actually read past the headlines of reviews before going to the show, and not one of those headlines (understandably) indicated the true extent of the ‘shocking’ nature of this show; to have such outrageous comic songs about subjects ranging from Egotism and teamwork to FGM and AIDS sung so very beautifully was a disturbing paradox. There’s a hell of a lot more to this show than first thought…
It is the cast as a whole who are responsible for the lasting impression of slick snappiness and flawlessness; in typical West End style, the entire cast were talented up to the eyeballs and made every second on that stage count. The cast of Mormons were something of a combination of super-eager youngsters, over-zealous club leaders and a barber shop quartet. The show boasts fantastic casting as one of its crowning glories; KJ Hippensteel (Elder Price) and Brian Sears (Elder Cunningham) make a dynamite comic duo. Their exchanges had me in stitches (they also gifted me with my first and only experience of corpsing actors on a West End Stage- it was truly magical). Sears in particular presented a character of many layers and somehow managed to acquire both hilarity and sympathy from the audience- often simultaneously. The fact that he was able to deliver so very many of his lines in a voice reminiscent of every Loony-Tunes villain, often directly into another actor’s mouth/ear/ general face area, without cracking up, was an unrivalled accomplishment in my eyes. Not only is the man a generously gifted comic actor, but he has a beautiful voice capable of some gorgeous harmonies.
Hippensteel somehow has the most befitting fixed smile for this kind of role; that grin alone is enough to impress, applied with dying eyes, glistening self-love and swallowed down resentment; he was perfection in the role, managing to balance being risible and lovable all at once. Hippensteel also has a classically powerful big-show theatre voice and belts through his songs with apparent effortlessness and copious amounts of character-led confidence. His attack of the giggles following a shampoo reference made him all the more lovable, even if that part was outside of the role!
Other sensational performances worthy of mention are Alexandra Ncube as Nabulungi (or Nutrigena, Nige etc etc) and the superb Steven Webb as Elder McKinley. Ncube was an absolute powerhouse. She managed to maintain a genuine innocence about her even while raising her voice to the heavens in cursing God and other equally eyebrow- hoiking ditties. She was like a Disney heroine brought to life, all doe-eyed and eager to save her people from the problems plaguing them. Her performance of ‘Sal Tlay Ka Siti’ is one of many perfect examples of how performances were both hilarious and poignant all at once; we were laughing at the mix-up while sympathising with her idealism. Her performance of ‘Baptize Me’ stood out by a mile, as did her spine tingling belts during her moments of realisation and disillusion.
Webb is probably actor who brought me the most laughs- he’s a talented dancer, singer and actor with the ability to combine the three to create brilliantly comic moments, and he had me clutching at my face in laughter. The shift of the hand gesture and ‘crush it’ were two of my favourite comic moments in this entire show. ‘Turn it Off’ is likewise probably my favourite musical sequence in the show, heavily owing to Webb’s performance as well as the trickery with lights and costumes, of course. Richard Lloyd-King, playing Mafala Hatimbi, carried his role with surprising grace and gravitas, considering the content of his lines (a running theme here, I know). I was particularly enamoured of his impeccable comic timing and his wise, powerful voice; James Earl Jones, eat your heart out! It’s also worth acknowledging the bravery of some of the cast; some of the lines they have to deliver are thoroughly hideous, and yet, night after night, they’re up there saying them.
The clash of emphatically cheesy upbeat ditties and the swelling, deep, beautiful sounds when the characters arrive in Africa make for a truly unique musical experience. Many shows have varied musical numbers, but I haven’t seen a show which combines such contrasting sounds to such a high degree of quality within the same song. Above all else, the musical numbers in the show are jaw-droppingly shocking (book, music and lyrics by Parker, Lopez and Stone). Of course, I expect some great voices when I see a big show, but when it is billed as a comedy as well as a musical, I expect the former to be far more prominent and polished than the latter. So combining fantastic voices with gut-punch lyrics was a complete surprise.
More surprising still was the reality check slapping modern audiences in the face. Yes, it’s definitely a comedy and a musical; yes, the references to the atrocities people are living through right now are mentioned amidst boppy songs, funny dances and gags, but actually, that’s what makes the references so inescapably glaring. Writing songs which draw attention to horrific things like FGM, sexuality conversion and domestic violence are hard-hitting, but writing comic songs about these issues somehow triples the force of that gut-punch. It’s fascinating to sit in the audience monitoring your own reactions to a show like this. Despite the laughs, I did leave the show thinking about the shocking conditions people are being forced to live with before entitled, spunky youngsters arrive with their underpants metaphorically over their trousers, ready to take both ownership and credit. The section of ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ where the cast offer a disclaimer along the lines of ‘if you don’t like what we say, try living our lives’; it’s that line which provides the cross-over between purposely outrageous comedy and a genuine social-political conscience.
Likewise, ‘I am Africa’, which includes the line ‘You are Africans, but we are Africa’ is a resounding example of the white-washing/ privilege/ audacity of the West blindly taking ownership of everything and anything under the illusion that they are automatically entitled to it. The show is very critical of how privileged people whine without reason while thinking they can fix huge, real issues with stories. The play within a play (a kind of Christmas Panto telling the story of The Book of Mormon), was a work of true genius, both in its design and comic realisation. It was also a scathing demonstration of how any stories presented as religion can be bought, invested in and presented back to the world in such a blatantly ridiculous manner; all it takes is belief, and as only a few recognise the metaphors in religion, problems arise. The closing musical number seems to scream ‘see, anything will do! Anyone’s a saviour’; and it therefore surprises me that the show didn’t get much more of a grilling- to acknowledge that religion is a set of stories, only holding power if it’s given power in a manner such as a mocking, large-scale, influential Broadway show is a pretty fearless thing to do.
The set design was brilliant; quite simple for a West End show, but quite a number of sets were used, and all very effectively. The were token props to create minor settings and glaring white space with sharp lines for the opening numbers, before sharply shifting to wooden huts, carcasses and fraying fabrics draped from the rigs to present Africa. The set for ‘Spooky Mormon Hall Dream’ was by far the best visual; a stage drenched in red light, with cave-like walls flown down, framing the cast in a furious spectacle of surreal silliness and sin. I loved every appearance of every ‘sinner’ in this scene (naming them might ruin a few arrivals, so I shan’t do so). It’s very, very difficult to name favourite musical numbers in ‘The Book of Mormon’, as there are just so many, but if I had to, I’d say ‘Hell Dream’, ‘Turn it Off’, ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ and ‘Baptize Me’. My one and only gripe about this show is the sheer number of chops and changes; some of the scenes were so brief that I did get a little irked by the constant scene shifts. That said, the speediness and slickness cannot be denied, so although there were lots of changes, at least it was all done with impressive precision.
The show itself is both the most shocking and the most surprising thing I have ever seen on stage. I’ve seen shocking comedy, I’ve heard the cringe-worthy sex jokes, racist cracks thrown about by comedians discussing their own race, and I’ve even heard a few shocking jokes about political issues; but I’ve never seen comedy, however satirical, take on truly terrible, real-life situations, plant them in the middle of a jazz-hands and bouncy-knees number and somehow make it work. I arrived to the show expecting some outrageous, ‘Inbetweeners’-esque comedy delivered in an adolescent vein, adorned with toilet humour and grimace-inducing sexual references. What I got was an outrageous comedy, delivered in a combined style I haven’t seen before, adorned with sex jokes only via real-life horror and genuine tragedy. It’s a show which in many ways defies description, owing to its true uniqueness, so I can see why pretty much all reviews lead with the outrageous comedy slant, rather than a more specific attempt to capture the content. But there’s more to it than that for me. Despite delivering the laughs and the shocks, as promised, it’s the nature of the shocks that shocked me. After the laughs, it takes some thinking about, and actually, that makes this thoroughly outrageous comic musical a surprisingly powerful thing.
Image credits: official Book of Mormon publicity.