music / Canberra Symphony Orchestra, ACTEWAGL Llewellyn Three, Llewellyn Theatre, July 18. Reviewed by GRAHAM McDONALD
Neither devout like “Godspell”, nor truly iconoclastic like “Jesus Christ Superstar”, this musical was devised collaboratively by Southpark creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone with Robert Lopez of “Avenue Q” fame.
They don’t shy away from apparent blasphemy, as in the notorious number, which curses “the almighty”, “Hasa Diga Eebowai”, but they balance that with an affirmation of the goodness that lies at the heart of adherents to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Parker and Stone, who grew up in Colorado not far from the Mormon stronghold, Salt Lake City, had always been fascinated by the idea of doing a musical about Mormons and as they say, musicals have been written about people living in Oklahoma and in the South Pacific, so why not?In writing a musical about two young Mormon proselytisers who are sent to Uganda, the creators have a fine opportunity to contrast the opulent life in the US, symbolised by that fantasy land, Orlando, Florida, with the maggot-infested Ugandan village where people are genuinely searching for something.
Without giving too much away, they find what they’re looking for, so it’s no surprise to learn that Mormons, while tut-tutting a bit, have embraced the universal popularity of this musical and even taken out ads in its programs.
There is, to be sure, an element of tongue-in-cheek in many of the numbers, like “Baptize Me”, “All-American Prophet“ and the show stopping choreographed number, “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”.
But the cast, headed up by Ryan Bondy and AJ Holmes, as the two young elders Price and Cunningham, and Zahra Newman (familiar to Canberrans from Sydney Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare) as Ugandan village girl Nabulungi, draw sympathy in numbers like “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” (Salt Lake City) and “Making Things up Again”.There is also outrageous comedy in choruses of gay-inclined young Mormons, flashbacks to 19th century Mormon founder Joseph Smith and an appearance by Jesus himself. Once in Africa, the opportunities for comedy are boundless as the bright eyed optimism of the young Mormons clashes with the plain-speaking pragmatism of the Ugandan characters. A typical, device is to undercut high emotion, with a scatological final phrase.
As for the production values, viewers won’t see anything much better than this. Unusually for a Broadway musical, this one was devised over a long period of time in theatrical workshops, repeatedly worked and reworked to get the songs, movement, setting and the costumes all perfectly integrated.
Because of this, what we see in Sydney is a theatre package with only minor changes to the cast seen when the show premiered in Melbourne.
The two central characters, Ryan Bondy as the egocentric handsome young Mormon Elder Price and AJ Holmes as his dorky but good-hearted companion Elder Cunningham, have both performed their roles in many places and don’t miss a beat.
The snappy, angular choreography by Casey Nicholaw is perfectly executed. The ever-changing set by Scott Pask has been designed to allow seamless transitions from Rochester NY to Salt Lake City to Uganda, to Orlando and into the depths of Hell.
With its upbeat affirmation of the power of belief to achieve change and a final thank you to the Almighty in “Ma Ha Nei Bu, Eeebowai”, this production of “The Book of Mormon” won’t get you thinking deeply, but it is pretty well guaranteed to send you away with a smile on your face.