So this week I got to see The Book of Mormon. This is one of those musicals that I've been excited about seeing since it hit Broadway - the other two of those being Wicked and Avenue Q. Besides my own anticipation for the show's arrival in London, there's also been a great deal of hype around the show - fuelled by a quirky social media campaign and eye-catching "The Mormons are Coming" posters across the city.
It's always a nice feeling seeing something you've been looking forward to but equally there's a worry of whether it will live up to expectations. In this case - it absolutely did, and then some. Knowing the score before seeing the show means the surprise of comedic lyrics is taken away, but there's a thrill of seeing this brought to life, and all the things you can't anticipate simply from listening to the music.
So, the show is set around two hopeful young Mormons' missionary visit to Uganda - with the aim of bringing the people they meet into the church. In anyone else's hands this sounds like a quaint little story but with the show penned by the creators of South Park of course this is not what you get. Even so, I find it frustrating when people solely focus on the apparent controversy of the work, and ignore the sheer talent and craft here - and what a brilliant piece of musical theatre this is.
The musical touches on serious issues affecting Africa - such as the plight of AIDS, female circumcision and the raping of infants (as this is believed by many to take away the HIV virus). When these issues are featured in a song, laughter is provoked in the audience. This is often through feeling you can't quite believe what is being said, or rather - sung, on stage. I only hope that people realise that these issues are real - there is the danger of people assuming these things are too ridiculous to be true but that that is just not the case.
Some people may even object to these issues being dealt with in a musical which so heavily relies on comedy. Personally I don't think excluding these issues would be right either, and I do think that if people come out of the theatre talking about what they've heard, and maybe even go home and do a bit of research online - then that can only be a good thing.
What frustrates me though is the assumption that because these issues are included in a comedy, that the creators of said comedy condone these things - that they would find the very real and serious plight of the Africans funny. There's a quote from Peter Ustinov which I may well have used before but I think it's apt - "comedy is simply a funny way of being serious." The show forces you to think about these ideas in a way others would not dare to do, and perhaps that deserves some credit.
Still, even with my very liberal mindset and sense of humour there were moments which made me feel uncomfortable, but then perhaps at times that is the point: laughing but knowing in reality this is not really okay. I guess there is a worry and sense of dubious morality in terms of the politics of representation at play here - that this sensitive story is being presented, and represented, by people completely outside of that world.
I think it's important to note that it's often overlooked that while Matt Stone and Trey Parker are wonderful creators of satire, with a great deal of thought behind the comedy, there is also a lot of heart in place too. While they poke fun at the Mormon religion - it is done lovingly. They grew up with Mormons in their town, knowing them and knowing that whatever they do, they do it with kindness and with a polite attitude.
There is a lovely moment when a character is waving the scepticism flag - citing how the Mormon stories presented are all false and ridiculous - and there is a response indicating that it doesn't matter if the stories are true or not, it's what they represent that counts. While it's clear that Parker and Stone find the foundations of the Mormon religion quite silly, there is no animosity towards those who do believe. Instead there is an attitude of if it gives you hope and keeps you happy and kind, then that's quite wonderful really.
The show is actually incredible heart warming and very sweet. I think people often get offended by things they haven't seen, and get offended on other people's behalf. You could easily cry "those poor Mormons!" but actually they have reacted brilliantly. They may not agree with everything presented but, being Mormons, they're polite enough to applaud the evident craft at play and also there is an appreciation for bringing the Mormon message to a wider audience. I love that in the Broadway programme the Mormons actually placed adverts for the real Book of Mormon. I feel that this gesture negates anyone's efforts to slate the production on behalf of the supposedly outraged Mormons.
So that's a lot about the politics, back to the performance. What really comes across here is how much the cast love working on this show - there's such a life and vitality to this ensemble. Some of my favourite moments came from the camp dancing when the Mormons are all together, to the point of hyperbole - Stephen Ashfield's performance as Elder McKinley was hilarious and so sweet.
The partnership between Gavin Creel and Jared Gartner as Elder Price and Elder Cunningham - in both moments of warmth and also conflict was sublime. The song "You and Me (But Mostly Me)" was the perfect set-up for this relationship and also a great display of Parker & Stone's song writing abilities. Then we have Alexia Khadime as the hopeful Afrigan girl Nabulungi - flitting between powerhouse, and at times even sexy, vocals and the sweetness and innocence of the character. Khadime also gives some moving, truthful moments - bringing the sad reality of the story home to us. Also a special mention to Olivia Philip who got some of the best comedic lines and absolutely stormed them.
I have a feeling this show will run and run - and hopefully also take over the Oliviers as the show did with the Tony Awards when it was on Broadway. If you're easily offended ie you walk out of a room when the c-word is used, this probably isn't the show for you. If that isn't you - and you love well written and performed musical theatre that is just ridiculous fun then you will absobloodylutely love this show.