Note: Cast has changed since this review
If you follow proceedings in the entertainment arena, you may well know as much if not far more than I do about this much-anticipated show. 'The Book of Mormon' has already been in residence on Broadway for the past two years, where it has been a huge success, and advance publicity for the show means there can't be many people in the UK who do not know about it already.
Given the descriptive nature of the title, it is pretty clear that the show is about the religious group informally known as the Mormons, or more accurately the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The congregation of this church stretches across the globe thanks to missionary activities which form part of the required service of a male member of the church. So, many of us are accustomed to being hailed in the street or on our doorsteps by young men, mostly American, who are desperate to convert anyone and everyone to their faith.
The show begins at a Mormon missionary training centre where a group of squeaky-clean young men in their late teens are preparing to head-off on their missions in various parts of the world. Elder Price (Gavin Creel) seems like the ideal young man to succeed in baptising more than any other missionary on his two-year endeavour. He is eagerly anticipating being sent to Orlando, Florida, which has been his dream-destination since childhood. Elder Price has pin-up good looks, and has all the attractive qualities to make him, well, popular. On the other hand another of the trainees is neither as charming or good-looking as Elder Price. Elder Cunningham (wonderfully played by Jared Gertner) is rather overweight for his diminutive stature, and with his spectacles and curly mop of hair, hardly meets the manicured image of the other missionaries who all seem to have inherited identical Mormon genetics. Elder Cunningham cannot remember the basic sales patter which the missionaries are trained to deliver, and moreover has issues with telling the truth. Since the missionaries are sent off on their work in pairs and must never leave each others' sides, you can see where this set-up is heading. Yes, the supremely confident and smooth-operating Price is twinned with the unreliable and gawky Cunningham. Disaster seems imminent as winner is teamed with loser, and is more or less assured when the ill-matched pair are sent, not to Orlando as Price yearned, but to Africa. The results are more or less predictable, though there are some surprises.
Given that this is a satire directed against a particular religious group – who are still very much alive and preaching – this show might have attracted a whole string of legal actions, or at least a heated public exchange between the production team and the Mormons. But apparently not from what I can gather. The Mormons seem to have taken the show in their stride – which implies they see no threat and have, in avoiding a public row, preserved their dignity. But I don't really think they have much to worry about anyway. Sure, the show pokes fun at them and their beliefs. In particular, the actual 'Book of Mormon' is scoffed at because of the incredulous nature of its origins. However, we see Elders Price and Cunningham not just as Mormons, but as individual human beings who find themselves in an extraordinary situation. In a sense, we laugh with them almost as much, if not more, than laughing at them. The satirical nature of the show is certainly never vicious or unduly cruel, though I found the reference to everyone in Africa having AIDS just the wrong side of bad taste for my liking. But most of the audience laughed at that remark as well much else besides.
On the evening I caught the show the cast were word-perfect, the action was flawless and the orchestra was in great form. There was an almost audible buzz from the audience almost as soon as they entered the theatre and they seemed ready and willing to laugh, and they did, and very frequently at that. There was an instant standing ovation at the end which in my experience is fairly rare even with long-running and much-loved shows. And when I say a standing ovation, I am referring to the entire audience and not a few ardent fans who have already seen the show. And speaking of fans, I noticed that a couple of people in the front stalls seemed to have already taken the show to their hearts as they were dressed in the missionary uniform of white shirt, black tie and trousers, as well as a name badge. If that does not signify a hit, I am not sure what does – unless, of course, they were Mormon missionaries.
I had to fight my way through hoards of people trying to buy last-minute tickets and there were a few dubious characters outside the theatre trying to buy-up any spares. So, whatever I or any other critic might say about this musical, it seems like it will be hard to dislodge it for some considerable time. In fact, the show is very funny – not the funniest I have seen in the past few years, but certainly one of them and very near the top of the 'funniest' list. It is cleverly written and extremely well-produced, and the excellent, energetic performances give the impression that the cast are loving every minute of it. It is enormously enjoyable, and the laughs keep coming even when the story-line seems about to run out of steam. Like the contents of the Book of Mormon itself, this show could well end-up being the stuff of legend.
Note: This Review is from a preview performance.
"While acknowledging that it is often damnably clever and sharp, I find it hard to warm to the show...The Book of Mormon strikes me as a decadent and self-indulgent musical, and its mixture of satire and syrup ultimately proves repellent."
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
"I absolutely loved it...songs, though not especially memorable, have bounce and bite and colour."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"I’m not sure its crude yet clever package is roll-in-the-aisles funny but it’s deliciously entertaining and there is certainly nothing like it in the West End."
Julie Carpenter for The Daily Express
"Its satire is insistently US college-campus adolescent. I tired of it after ten minutes...This is a cowardly, coarse, cynical show, worth avoiding. Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
" Indecently funny...The music...is generally jaunty and from time to time soars operatically, though only three or four of the tunes are really memorable.
Henry Hitchings for Evening Standard
"A mildly amusing musical, with some knowingly parodic songs, that takes a few pot shots at religious credulity without ever questioning the need for belief. I had a perfectly pleasant time, but the idea that the show, which won nine Tony awards, is either daringly offensive or a Broadway breakthrough is pure codswallop...For all its rude words, this is essentially a safe, conservative show for middle America."
Michael BIllington for The Guardian