I am one of the few, apparently, who saw the original cast of Book of Mormon on Broadway and did not experience some kind of wondrous hilarious musical theatre epiphany. It seemed unfocused, puerile and too try-hard, with a pastiche forgettable score but some excellent performances (and some dire ones).
It’s about to open on the West End at the Prince of Wales Theatre with millions in advance bookings and fiendish word-of-mouth excitement propelling it forward as THE ticket to get.
The preview audience I saw it with last night adored it when it understood what was happening, missed most of the “in” musical jokes (for example, the parody of I Have Confidence In Me was almost over before most people got it, albeit they were quicker off the mark with Tomorrow…) and for long patches seemed more mystified than entertained, but were intent on enjoying what played out before them.
For my part, it is as plain as a pike staff that the performers at hard work in this Parker, Lopez and Stone piece are, uniformly, at the top of their game and give more than 100% constantly.
This production is far, far better than that original Broadway production.
Gavin Creel is in sensational winning form as the smug Elder Price, sure of his destiny in Orlando. He sings with style and warmth and his comic timing is excellent. Jared Gertner is wonderful, in every way, as the nerdy Elder Cunningham who converts an African tribe to his own mish-mash of Mormon lore and SciFi standards with impressive results. Like James Corden, he knows how to put his excessive girth to good and hilarious use but, unlike James Corden, he is full of grace, subtlety and endless bubbling joy and energy and never hesitates to let someone else have the spotlight.
Stephen Ashfield, an impeccable Bob Guadio in Jersey Boys, is almost unrecognisable here as the tortured Elder McKinley, struggling to repress his inner Ginger Rogers, and his singing and terrific dancing is astonishingly good – and funny. Actually, this show is never better than in the scenes where the Elders are singing and dancing – every one of them is dashing, precise, deft and vocally strong and each can dance precisely and to great humorous effect. They are all an absolute joy to watch – but Mark Anderson (his meerkat will stay with me forever) Ashley Day and Michael Kent shine like proverbial twinkling stars and bring ravishing dexterity and panache to every second they spend on stage.
Alexi Khadime is beautiful of form and voice as the innocent Nabulungi and Giles Terera is sensational as her protective but cynical father, bringing the house down with the impressively foul-mouthed Hasa Diga Eebowai.
Tyrone Huntley is a sizzling scene-stealer as the Doctor with maggots in his scrotum.
There are no dull, tired or incapable performers here; everyone is in superb form.
Casey Nicholaw’s choreography is exacting, surprising and delicious – and everyone executes it with charm and enthusiastic energy which is impossible not to admire. In fact, there is nothing not to admire about this production…but the show itself, the book and the score, do not reach the dizzying heights of the performances or live up to the hype.
Essentially a series of sketches, it mostly hangs together, sometimes truly funny, other times forgettable and, all too often, appallingly distasteful. Many of the women in the audience (and quite a few men) did not find the joking about female circumcision at all funny – and why would they?
Mocking religion or gender or sexuality is one thing; mocking human tragedy quite another.
While the book has serious points to make about the problems with blind faith of any kind, about the dangers inherent in religious ferver amongst the uneducated, about how modern society will accept almost anything as “religion” and the repression inherent in religious dogma, and makes them exceedingly well, at other times the material seems trite or puerile and somewhat lost. The Spooky Mormon Hell Dream number, for instance, is interminable and does not really advance the narrative.
There are some great moments in the score – I Believe, Hello and Turn It Off are all gems – and Joseph Smith American Moses is a miracle, parodying The King And I’s Small House Of Uncle Thomas with skewer like precision – but mostly the tunes do not grab hold of your subconscious and infiltrate it.
Too often, the sound balance is wrong and diction is defeated – a real pity where the lyrics are unknown and what joy there is to be had comes from the juxtaposition of expletives and “off” expressions, but this seems a deliberate decision as so it was on Broadway.
But, look, for an unchallenging night of many good laughs made memorable by a superlative all singing, all dancing cast, this company in this production of The Book of Mormon is hard to beat.
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