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Cartoon Mormons in Uganda

12 April 2013

Michael Caines sees a musical that picks a soft target for satire


Song and dance: a multicultural moment in the West End musical The Book of Mormon

Song and dance: a multicultural moment in the West End musical The Book of Mormon

THE fabled Book of Mormon is, of course, the third part in a trilogy - as the audience learns during the musical of the same name - like The Return of the Jedi. A product of the Second Great Awakening, and the "visions" of its founder, Joseph Smith, Jr, it supplements the Old and the New Testaments (Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back to you) by almost 600 pages, and supplements the story of Christianity with an American subplot.

Now, millions belong to its largest denomination, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and its worldwide mission has long been a cause for scorn or bemusement among its rivals - Churches that hold no truck with the Jedi.

Perhaps the only possible reasonable artistic response to Mormonism is the one now running at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London, the heavily hyped musical from the makers of South Park, ornamented with jokes about, say, AIDS. The Book of Mormon displays similar virtues to the source of its inspiration: it is ludicrous as well as crude. It is also more fun.

Fans of the long-running cartoon series South Park will know what to expect from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who have collaborated here with Robert Lopez (who co-wrote Avenue Q) on the music and lyrics to this hugely successful import from Broadway. The South Park movie pastiches Les Misérables and has Satan sing a plaintive ballad; Jesus appears in the series itself frequently, as the host of a show called Jesus and Pals.

It is no surprise that Jesus turns up again here, and that there are also turns from Joseph Smith and the angel Moroni, who is believed to have appeared to him in 1823. That this visitor directed Smith to unearth the golden plates of the Book of Mormon, but nobody else could bear witness to their existence, makes for one obvious target. But then all the targets are obvious. The satire is aunt-sally stuff.

The story begins with enthusiastic pairs of missionaries receiving their assignments and going out into the world to spread their version of the Word. The most ambitious of them, Elder Price (the excellent Gavin Creel), had hoped for Orlando, but is sent to Uganda with, to make matters worse, the black sheep of the class, Elder Cunningham (the also excellent Jared Gertner). Again, among the athletic teams of dancers and singers around him, it is fairly predictable that the short, tubby fellow with buck teeth and a piercing voice just happens to be, initially at least, the butt of the jokes. He is also the source of the Jedi comparison, and, once in Uganda, it is his accidental initiative that starts making converts of the reluctant locals.

What matters, it turns out, is not the rigid truth, as laid down in any holy book, but good stories that say the right things about people, and encourage freedom from fear and violence. In at least one case - the mission's first baptism in this part of Uganda - it matters, too, that the promise of going to some- where as heavenly as the Latter- Day Saint capital, Salt Lake City, is taken literally. Elder Cunning- ham is flying high, but the scene is set for a traditional fall from grace.

Before that can happen, there are songs that have to be sung, about sticking your head in the sand when things get tough ("Turn it off") and dreaming of going to "spooky Mormon hell" when gripped by guilt; as that first convert, Nabulungi, Alexia Khadime sings wonderfully of the wonders of Salt Lake City.

There are also dances, many of them in the traditional Broadway manner. Indeed, traditional theatrical skills account for much of the pleasure in the show, courtesy of the energetic dance team, the loud band, and the louder costumes. In a cartoon Uganda, cartoon Mormons learn a lesson about dealing with real life, there are general swipes at theism, and a copy of the Mormon book is treated somewhat impiously. This leaves only the crudeness - as if worse was not heard on any given Saturday night in town or city. And that wasn't set to music.

The Book of Mormon is at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Coventry Street, London W1, booking until 14 December. Phone 0844 482 5115.


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