Pull The Utah One, It’s Got Bells On

Niall Anderson watches the West End transfer of The Book Of Mormon

Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter Saints, pops in on a little Colorado town
Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints, pops in on a little Colorado town

It goes without saying that Americans on the whole have a different view of religion than Europeans, and a lot of this has to do with how the two civilisations conceive of the rights of their individual citizens. To vulgarise slightly, in Europe rights are conceived of in negative: they’re the things that nobody can legally stop you from doing. In America, the connotation is largely positive when not outright libertarian. The expression of your individual rights as a citizen is precisely what marks you out as American; a tendency that in turn reinforces the notion of America itself as the great unindividuated home of personal freedom.

There are ironies galore here, but one thing there isn’t is actual irony. The sober Baptist in his New England chapel, the snakehandler in his revivalist’s tent, the dollar-mad televangelist in his sweaty megachurch: all are equally protected by the same Bill of Rights. This is a legalistic definition of equality, to be sure, but in a nation effectively founded by lawyers it has become something close to the cultural definition too. To suggest in the public realm that some manifestations of the religious impulse are kookier than others is held to be impolite; to suggest that religion as a whole might be a crock has the ring of sedition about it. When you mock the faithful, are you not also attacking their fundamental rights as citizens?

All of which perhaps explains the especial nervousness – and the especial atmosphere of heretical glee – that greeted the first Broadway run of The Book Of Mormon in 2011. A satirical musical about America’s foremost native religion, written and co-directed by America’s foremost native satirists (South Park honchos Trey Parker and Matt Stone), the advance word was so hectically positive that you almost thought they’d found a cure for religion through the medium of dancing and low sarcasm. In a probably unconscious echo of the missionary zeal the musical elsewhere mocks, The Book Of Mormon has evangelised itself into a number of touring productions, one which turned up in London last week. Far from home in an alien culture, how would Mormon get on in the godless hinterlands of Soho and Piccadilly?

"Take a Uganda at that!"
“Take a Uganda at that!”

The answer is: pretty well, thank you. The Book Of Mormon is first and foremost a good night out – a lively gaudy thing full of catchy songs delivered by a crack cast. It has an evident respect for the classic Broadway musical without feeling bound by the form. The humour is universal, which is to say that it mostly revolves around dick and poo jokes delivered in funny voices. A number of the choreographed set pieces are staggering both in their inventiveness and the sheer patience with which they go after silliness until it’s wrung absolutely dry of humour. Strange to say, I liked these bits best of all.

Mormon introduces us to two rookie missionaries in Salt Lake City. Dashing zealot Elder Price (Gavin Creel) is initially unhappy to be paired off with schlubby tagalong Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner), but reasons that it will probably give him more chance to shine. His sense of mission dips again when the pair are told they’re going to Uganda, but this is nothing compared to the dip in his spirits that follows actually reaching Uganda. A lawless war-zone, riven with AIDS and baby-rapists, this doesn’t seem like an ideal patch for Elder Price to stake his claim as a leader of his church. The final indignity comes when sadsack Elder Cunningham proves to be quite good at this missionary business, albeit by the expedient of tossing away The Book Of Mormon and starting to make shit up.

Mormon’s big dare against taste is the Ugandan setting, and the first major song of this section – a sparkly native ditty called ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ – is the first time you get a real whiff of sulphur from the show. Ostensibly a Lion King-style hymn to the circle of life, replete with chiming Hi Life guitars and warm choral vocals, the song gradually turns into something much nastier. It also goes on for far too long: the joke having been established after the second chorus, it then gets trampled on, abused and kicked about the stage for a further five minutes until it no longer really resembles a joke. The song actively exhausts the audience’s laughter and just keeps going. The rote ovation the performance received was the most entertainingly queasy moment of the show for me: the one point where I felt that the satire was all-embracing and properly righteous.

Soft-shoe shuffle
Soft-shoe shuffle

Of course, a show that consisted only of moments like that would be unwatchable and largely self-defeating. Easier targets are fine as long as your aim is good, and for the most part The Book Of Mormon hits them square on. The whiff of sulphur never quite dies away either – resurfacing most obviously in an Africanised retelling of the life of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith – but the overall moral tone of the piece is the lightly mocking can’t-we-all-get-along humanism familiar from hundreds of episodes of South Park. The panoptic anger and the sheer dedication to offence of Team America: World Police are largely absent, and missed.

Which is not to say that The Book Of Mormon isn’t potentially offensive at least to some. In the unlikely event that a coachload of Latter Day Saints buy tickets to the show, you wouldn’t bet against them leaving politely at the interval. But in the end, you’re left thinking about the differences of tone in the debate about religion on both sides of the Atlantic, and how what seems like gently reasonable ribbing over here has the force of a principled counterblast over there. Hence, maybe, the rather too strenuous yawns of the British press since the show opened in London (review round-up, with spoilers). We’d like to show the yanks how unshockable we are, how far beyond America’s rigid fundamentalist binaries. There is even some justice to this view, but it’s a justice that The Book Of Mormon itself actually ends up embodying, and far more entertainingly than the carping of any critic – myself included.

The Book Of Mormon is running at The Prince Of Wales Theatre, London

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One thought on “Pull The Utah One, It’s Got Bells On

  1. Totally agree that it stopped short its magnificent potential for grandiose offense — but that doesn’t detract from how fun it was.

    After seeing it on Monday, it was not your usual West End crowd: far younger and obviously less family. Which is what made the standing ovation some of the crowd gave it a bit cringeworthy: yes you got tickets to the hottest show in town by the guys who did South Park, and while it was a brilliant production, not quite stand up ovation worth in my mind. Those plays are few and far between — and rarely comedy.

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