By Leah Siegel
It takes chutzpah to satirize an established religion like The Book of Mormon does. Judging by the amount of laughter heard in the Queen Elizabeth on opening night, the musical didn’t have much converting to do.
The play follows Elder Price and Elder Cunningham as they set out on assignment to rural Uganda in hopes of proselytizing. For Elder Price, this is a big let-down: he’d been crossing his fingers to be sent to Orlando after a falling in love with Disneyworld on a memorable family trip. Elder Cunningham, meanwhile, couldn’t be more pleased to be paired up with Price and takes up the role of his sidekick with gusto. Upon arrival, the two immediately realize they’re in over their heads as the villagers face much more serious issues and have no interest in religion. Indeed, the motto the village lives by is a vulgar dismissal of god.
Thanks to the irreverent humour of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and the comedic musical chops of Broadway veteran (and Frozen co-creator) Robert Lopez, The Book of Mormon is full of noteworthy moments worth the price of admission. I will fondly remember the utterly ridiculous optics of very white men, clad in all white outfits, unironically singing, “We are Africa.” A glitzy tap dance to “Turn It Off,” a song about repressing one’s feelings, also stands out.
What steals the show, though, is the performance of the two leads. Kevin Clay’s Elder Price is a petulant, precocious young man who thinks he will change the world at 19. Clay capably earns both the audience’s scorn, and later sympathy — and dang, can he sing. Conner Peirson’s Elder Cunningham, in contrast, is a bumbling but well-intentioned compulsive liar. His embodiment of the character, from the flinging up of hands in excitement to the surprisingly spry kicks he delivers in his choreography add an endearing, energized earnestness to the play. It’s this earnestness that keeps The Book of Mormon from veering too far into the cynical.
There are moments when the jokes fall flat. One such line is a villager proclaiming, at multiple points throughout the show, that he has maggots in a certain area of his body (we’ll leave you to guess where specifically). Does this particular bit of information add anything to the story? No. Is it a smart joke? No. But it’s the type of South Park scatological humor that Parker and Stone made their brand. We’ll allow them this indulgence.
You can also fault the play (and many have) for its portrayal of the African villagers in general. It’s one thing to make light of Mormon missionaries, but the transition to the Ugandan village where primary concerns are AIDS, warfare and female circumcision is uncomfortable and smells vaguely like the tragedy porn that so often paints the continent in broad, one-dimensional strokes. Elder Cunningham’s inability to remember the name of the Ugandan female lead is also awkward. Is the joke that he’s culturally ignorant, or that her name is so foreign to Western ears?
However, it’s the concerns of these villagers that underscore the ineptitude of these young missionaries, and how out-of-touch a religion can be when imposed on others. What’s striking, then, is how The Book of Mormon concludes. For a musical that takes such a cynical look at organized religion, the ending is an almost heart-warming compromise.
The Book Of Mormon runs until Sept. 30 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.Book Of Mormon, Musical, Queen Elizabeth Theatre