After the saturation media and marketing blitz that has seen The Book of Mormon become as pervasive around London as the Gideon bible used to be in hotel rooms, the first and most important question is whether the Broadway behemoth can actually live up to the hype and all the hope? It may be all about a desperate mission to save souls, but can it save its own, surprisingly sweet and tender soul from itself?
A scene from The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre, London Photo: Johan Persson
Even Gavin Creel - its imported Broadway co-star who plays one of the two young missionaries who is being newly despatched to Uganda - said in a recent British press interview: “You just have to forgive yourself that it isn’t going to live up to everyone’s expectations. There’s no way you can deliver ‘the greatest musical of the century’.”
And no, he’s right - it isn’t that. And for all the advance publicity of the kind of declarations that it is “the most expletive-driven, jaw-droppingly shocking and gasp-inducingly offensive show the West End has ever witnessed”, according to a reporter from the Daily Telegraph, it doesn’t live up (or down) to that hype, either. (Has the reporter forgotten Jerry Springer the Opera?)
In fact, the biggest surprise is its air of innocence, so blithely caught in the earnestness of the young missionaries to spread their own unique gospel. It’s a blast of often goofy, sometimes glorious satirical musical comic delight, from its clever opening ‘Hello!’ welcome to its pop/gospel-influenced finale Tomorrow is a Latter Day.
Between those two points, the missionaries encounter a totally alien landscape that include an African warlord with a different mission, and whose own more intimidating gospel includes an insistence on female circumcision (“Many young girls here get circumcised/their clits get cut right off” the locals sing to the missionaries). Meanwhile, AIDS is widespread - “80% of us have AIDS” - and as some believe that sex with a virgin will cure it but there’s a shortage of virgins, babies are being raped instead (one of the missionaries suggests sex with a frog instead).
It’s not your typical Broadway musical fare to be sure, but the joyful thing about the show is how it has digested a century of great Broadway musicals, reprocessed them and created a punishingly funny pastiche of many of them. Whereas Monty Python’s Spamalot was a metamusical that was about musicals themselves, this is a comic musical of more subtle and ironic tributes, from Wicked and The Lion King to The King and I, The Sound of Music, The Music Man and more.
Most of all, it reminded me of Guys and Dolls, which is also about missionaries in the altogether more familiar landscape of Times Square. There Sister Sarah declares defiantly, “I’m a mission doll!” as she sets about the seemingly hopeless task of converting professional gamblers into believers. These missionaries face an even harder task.
Its co-creators Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez, of course, have prior form in such appropriations, the first pair from their work on the long-running animated TV sitcom South Park, and Lopez on Avenue Q. So they have a template for the mischievous and outrageous comedy that results, and it has been here vividly and spectacularly adapted for the stage by co-directors Casey Nicholaw (who also choreographs) and Parker.
It does sometimes try too strenuously to shock, some songs outstay their welcome and at other times it is played too knowingly; in a way that undermines the charm. But the two American imports of the clean-cut Creel and the comically nerdy Jared Gertner make a blissful study in contrasts, and they’re joined by an irrepressible, irresistible local company of mormons and Africans, including particularly terrific contributions from Stephen Ashfield, Alexia Khadime, Chris Jarman and Giles Terera.
The production is every bit as good as the one I saw on Broadway when the show first opened there almost exactly two years ago, proving that we’re now equal in every way to New York in delivering a production of flair and flourish. But it has also been a triumph of marketing to raise the consciousness of the public here so that it is already the most talked about show in London.
The good news is that the talk isnít hot air. This show is the real deal, but as such it does it a disservice to make too many ridiculous claims for it. The initial momentum that has been created now seems unstoppable, and the show has already extended booking through to January next year.
It has also hiked its prices to a new West End top of £72.50 for regular prices from July 1, and an unprecedented £125 for premium tickets with immediate effect. And after achieving an all-time record take in British and Broadway history of £2,107,972 for single day ticket sales the day after its opening, it looks as though it will be around for a very long time.