The Book of Mormon took Broadway by storm when it premiered at the Eugene O’Neill theatre in New York in 2011 and – in addition to winning a whole host of awards – it has been breaking box office records in the US and around the world ever since. When tickets went on sale on February 2016 – almost a year ago to the day – Melbourne’s Princess Theatre recorded the highest selling on sale period for any production in the theatre’s 159-year history.
And it’s not hard to see why. Created by the duo behind South Park – Trey Parker and Matt Stone – and Robert Lopez of Avenue Q and Frozen pedigree, The Book of Mormon is funny, irreverent and absurdly heart-warming – but most of all, the music is fantastic.
Ryan Bondy as Elder Price, photos by Jeff Busby
The show tells the story of a pair of bright-eyed Mormon missionaries who quickly find themselves in over their heads when they’re sent to a Ugandan village to spread the teachings of Joseph Smith. Canadian Ryan Bondy is Elder Price, an arrogant, ambitious Mormon set on doing something incredible as a missionary – but preferably in his dream destination, Orlando, Florida. A.J. Holmes is his mission companion, Elder Cunningham, an anxious Star Wars geek who has trouble keeping friends. Both Bondy and Holmes are veterans of The Book of Mormon’s US performances.
The pair are robbed at gunpoint upon arrival in the village by soldiers of the local warlord General Butt Fucking Naked (Augustin Aziz Tchantcho) – his name an allusion to the feared Liberian warlord, and later Christian convert, Joshua Milton Blahyi ‘General Butt Naked’ – before meeting the chief, Mafala Hatimbi – played with energetic comedy by Bert Labonté – and his daughter Nabulungi, sung by VCA graduate Zahra Newman.
Ryan Bondy as Elder Price and Augustin Aziz Tchantcho as the General
Bondy is slick and supercilious as Elder Price, his voice coppery and fervent as he preaches to the villagers – who are more concerned with the immediate pressures of famine, disease (“I have maggots in my scrotum,” is a refrain that runs through the show) and a warlord enforcing female circumcision. Price exudes a tightly controlled panic as the challenges he’s facing become apparent.
Holmes is a dishevelled, slightly frenzied Elder Cunningham. He plays up the social awkwardness – standing too close, giggling – but demonstrates a remarkable vocal flexibility, shifting effortlessly from comic inflections to a clean, powerful timbre that belies his nervous posture.
Rowan Witt – a Sydney Con grad (who was also the “there is no spoon” kid in The Matrix) – is the district leader of the Mormon missionaries, Elder McKinley, who is struggling to supress his homosexual thoughts. Witt leads the Mormon ensemble in Turn it off – a wonderful crescendo of tap-dancing, high-camp Broadway fun – with bright, forced-smile panache that gives way to unforced joy.
Zahra Newman as Nabulungi and A.J. Holmes as Elder Cunningham
Newman is a chipper, wide-eyed Nabulungi, entranced by the redemption promised by the missionaries. Her voice soars in Sal Tlay Ka Siti – a paradise where “flies don’t bite your eyeballs and human life has worth” – her sound unfurling brilliantly as the stars emerge.
The creators playfully subvert the standard musical love story with one of conversion, the climax a coy, erotic baptism duet between Newman and Holmes that brims with both humour and vocal power.
The show makes reference – poking fun and paying tribute in equal measure – to a myriad of musicals. Hasa Diga Eebowai is an obscene stand-in for The Lion King’s Hakuna Matata, Elder Price’s pining for Orlando suggests Tomorrow from Annie, and the introduction to his stunning sung anthem/manifesto I Believe: “A warlord who shoots people in the face, what’s so scary about that,” is straight out of The Sound of Music. And that’s just scratching the surface. Elder Cunningham’s gritty rock song Man Up has strong echoes of Now You’re a Man from the soundtrack to Parker and Stone’s 1997 film Orgazmo.
Casey Nicholaw’s choreography infuses the ensemble numbers with a showy vitality – movements draw on everything from cheerful Mormons marching to the symptoms of dysentery – that plants The Book of Mormon firmly in the the Broadway tradition.
The cast of The Book of Mormon
Scott Pask’s sets are beautiful: the flash-back scenes that explain the history of the Mormons and their faith are painterly pastel, Salt Lake City and Orlando are fairy-tale visions and the Ugandan village is rendered with a gritty realism. Kellie Dickerson leads the orchestra, driving the music forward.
Blasphemous, crude and shocking at times – though perhaps not so much to those familiar with Stone and Parker’s previous output – The Book of Mormon is incredibly funny, but also touching – thanks in no small part to sympathetic performances by Holmes, Witt and Newman.
While Uganda is as much a caricature as the Mormons are, the show is quick to point out the well-meant arrogance of bringing Western religion to people in desperate need of more practical aid. But though the show pokes fun, it is done with obvious affection (an affection that may not necessarily be appreciated by all Mormons, despite the church piggy-backing off the marketing).
In the end, this is a fantastic show – the book and score both won Tony Awards for the trio of creators – and a cast without a weak link. But it is Newman and Holmes who stand out – their duet Baptize Me is the highlight of the evening.
Book of Mormon is at the Lyric Theatre, Sydney until April 22
Read Limelight’s interview with Trey Parker and Matt Stone here.