Australia finally has the chance to say Hello! to The Book of Mormon, and this sparkling production has been well worth the wait.
Perhaps we needed the time to be ready for the show’s touches of music theatre humour. In the years since The Book of Mormon blazed across the Great White Way and swept the 2011 Tony Awards, Australian co-producer John Frost has taken the chance to stage local revivals of Wicked, The King And I and The Sound of Music, each of which are referenced in this Broadway valentine.
The language may be crasser and cruder than usual, but co-writers Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone have crafted a musical in the grand Golden Age tradition. The irreverent tone and outlandish humour create many a did-they-really-just-say-that moment, but it is the heart and soul that of the show that underpin its ongoing appeal.
The rare post-millennial musical not to be based on a movie or a back catalogue of pop music, The Book of Mormon boasts an original story and an all-new score. The songs are catchy, if not overly melodious, and the lyrics are simply superb. A buddy story in the tradition of The Producers and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the book puts preppy Elder Price and dorky Elder Cunningham through the gamut of emotions usually reserved for a romantic leading couple.
Parker shares the role of director with Broadway’s current King Midas, Casey Nicholaw. The pair grounds the outrageous action in reality; the stakes are all very genuine to the characters and the humour is far funnier for it. A potted history of the Mormon religion and an assortment of facts about its basis need no help at all to sound hilariously funny. The fact that the show still ends up at a poignant realisation of the role of religion and story telling is testament to the quality of the book, direction and performances.
Nicholaw also delivers choreography that is delightfully spectacular without being overwhelming to the scenes. Energy is kept high by involving ensemble members in almost all of the numbers. From tapping Elders to boy band members to squirming residents of hell, Nicholaw draws upon a vivid dance vocabulary to enliven each situation.
The humour expands beyond writing and direction, with many visual gags woven throughout the design elements.
Costume designer Anne Roth illustrates the poverty of the Ugandan villagers by dressing them in mismatched items that appear to have been foraged from discarded refuse. For the climactic sequence “Joseph Smith American Moses,” which is a pitch perfect parody of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from The King and I, Roth ensures the costumes appear convincingly hand-made by the villagers, to match their vivid interpretations of the Mormon characters they have heard so much about.
Scott Pask’s scenic design looks stunning in the Princess Theatre, the planetary design above the proscenium arch stretching higher overhead than in the Broadway and West End stagings. Pask contrasts the lush commercial landscape of Salt Lake City with the barren den of death in Uganda to great effect. The witty set within a set for “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” adds to the success of this number.
Brian MacDevitt’s lighting design adds dappled texture to the stage. One of the funniest effects of the night comes after the second time the lights go out in “Turn It Off.”
Brian Ronan’s sound design delivers the booming voices of God and Jesus in atmospheric surround sound, and neatly balances the nine musicians with the cast’s vocals. Esteemed music director Kellie Dickerson leads the band with a rocking quality that has the audience remaining in the theatre to hear, and subsequently cheer, the playout music.
In a production where the show is the star, elder statesman Bert Labonté earned opening night’s sole round of entrance applause in his role as village elder Mafala. Labonté gives a reliably nuanced, deliberately underplayed performance, setting the tone for the whole show early in the night with his gently sophisticated work in wickedly subversive number “Hasa Diga Eebowai.”
Breakout star of the production is Zahra Newman as Mafala’s dear daughter Nabulungi. A veteran of many a straight play, Newman unveils an incredibly impressive singing voice that is equally comfortable singing sweetly as belting. The relationship between Nutella Nutribullet Jon Bon Jovi Nabulungi and Elder Cunningham is the closest one to a traditional musical romance, and Newman plays it with wide-eyed innocence that is all the more appealing given the dire surroundings. Newman’s crystal clear diction and elegant expression bring the humour and humanity of her role to life in equal measure.
Rowan Witt brings an infectious sparkle to repressed closet case Elder McKinley, seizing every possible moment to infuse an extra bubble of effervescence into the young mission leader’s life.
While the ensemble cast works with well-matched flair, Matt Holly and Elenoa Rokobaro deserve special mention for the high quality of their contributions.
In the lead male roles, it is somewhat difficult to see what the imported actors Ryan Bondy, as Elder Price, and A. J. Holmes, as Elder Cunningham, bring to the show that could not have been achieved with Australian actors. Holmes, with significant experience in his role, fares more successfully as well-meaning goofball Elder Cunningham.
The Australian season of The Book of Mormon is a crisply staged production of a deliriously funny musical. All but the most conservative music theatre fans are urged to secure their ticket as soon as possible.
The Book of Mormon plays at Princess Theatre, Melbourne.
Photos: Jeff Busby