THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone
Prince of Wales Theatre, Coventry St, London W1D 6AS
The question is ‘Does it live up to they hype?’ and the answer, most assuredly, is yes. Parker and Stone, the wittily scatological creators of the hit animated sitcom South Park have joined up with Lopez, creator of the equally irreverent, but less funny, Avenue Q, to create a show which is indecently funny.
What is great about this tale of two naive young Mormon missionaries sent to a violent and remote village in Uganda, is how it totally embraces the Broadway Musical form while at the same time mercilessly sending up its more florid excesses. What takes it beyond smart-ass college review satire, however, is that the piece actually has heart. You won’t get a hatchet job on religion here (and the Church of Latter-Day Saints even advertises in the programme!), but what you do get is a lampooning of the deluded egocentrism of evangelisation. They also parody western stereotypes of Africa and the pomposity of right-on pop stars who drone on about it. “Is anything missing in your life?” the chirpy Elder Price demands of a Ugandan women emerging from her crumbling shack. In the end it says religion gets people through the day but that’s no reason why we can’t comically interrogate its more absolutist parables.
Anyone who has seen the South Park movie will know that Parker and Stone really understand how musical theater songs work and the show is packed with tongue in cheek references to everything from The Lion King to The King and I. They may not know or care, but they’re continuing something Sondheim did in a section of Follies when he lovingly sent up song styles from the first half of the 20th century. Here the raw material may be much less polished but it’s the same process. We get the overblown power ballad, the bombastic rock opera, the pumped up soul numbers, familiar from recent shows and all executed with that supreme finesse which is typical of Broadway. The songs may not have the brittle eloquence of Lorenz Hart but it doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent.
Casey Nicholaw’s deceptively low-key direction is also perfectly judged and he packs the piece with witty surprises. The school-play sets also add to its charm. His choreography is totally winning and in numbers like Turn It Off; where the Mormon boys sing a hymn to self-denial, he generates explosions of showbiz joy which would bring a twinkle to Jerry Herman’s eye. This is a show that knows about transcendence, albeit of the merely theatrical kind.
Looking like a cross between Val Kilmer and a Ken Doll, Gavin Creel is perfect as Elder Price. His number You and Me (But Mostly Me) sums him up and Creel’s stunning voice brings the house down on I Believe.
As his unwanted sidekick, Jared Gertner (the other US cast import) combines puppy dog energy and nebbishness in equal measure, as the dumpy and irritating Elder Cunningham. Both undergo journeys of self-discovery (of course) but it’s Cunningham’s propensity for telling yarns that lands them in serious trouble. Bored with the real text, he soups up The Book of Mormon with input from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Alexia Khadime, too, has a killer soul voice and steals every scene she is in as the village girl, love-interest, Nabulungi.
Some older or more conservative audiences might recoil from the more profane aspects but the show is an equal opportunities offender. The new young crowd it will pull in are generally more ambivalent about the antique charms of musical theater, but what they will be getting here is actually something very old fashioned indeed. Now THAT is radical.