South Park creators Trey Parker & Matt Stone’s religion-skewering musical returns to Toronto
The Book of Mormon, the 2011 musical by South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez, is widely known for its incisively offensive humour, catchy tunes, and serious skewering of the Mormon church and its relentless proselytizing. Winner of nine Tony Awards, it has toured relentlessly ever since, ringing our doorbells and demanding our attention. Unlike most missionaries, however, it’s a guest I’d happily invite in to stay a while.
Elders Kevin Price and Arnold Cunningham (Liam Tobin and Jordan Matthew Brown) are a young adult missionary odd couple; Price is the community’s golden child who’s promised himself he’ll “do something incredible,” and Cunningham is the weird outcast who tries even the nicest Mormon’s patience with his penchant for making stuff up, usually adding details of his favourite science fiction franchises to his mundane life.
Instead of being sent to Price’s dream city of Orlando, they find themselves with the hardest of assignments: convert the populace of a small, desperately poor Ugandan village. Once there, they must confront an indifferent crowd of people rightly more worried about famine, crippling disease, and the raging local warlord who is going around violently enforcing FGM. With a situation so outside of the box they’ve created for themselves, the missionaries find that some outside-the-book thinking might be necessary.
Irreverent, raunchy, and fun, the show is a salute to the power of imagination over dogma – the ability to adapt to the actual needs of your audience, and of the world. It’s also a vicious satire of the “white saviour” mentality and the concept of American exceptionalism, wrapped in the trappings of bubbly, shiny musical theatre.
The staging is accordingly bright and fast-paced, switching ably between detailed renditions of a desolate Ugandan village, animatronic church diorama, and demonic hellscape. It makes great use of large colourful backdrops, and impressive quick costume changes. Meanwhile, it embraces all the musical and choreographic tropes of the genre with an ironic twist, like the romantic duet that’s superficially about baptism, but functions as one long double entendre, or the frantic, too-happy tap dancing of “Turn It Off,” as the budding young Mormons clap the lights – and their emotions and insecurities – on and off repeatedly.
In doing so, it gets a lot of mileage out of the juxtaposition between expectation and reality, and glittering delusion versus straight-man disbelief. It constantly winks at itself, with the occasional discordant cacophony bringing us down to earth after a particularly ebullient musical number. And, yes, the humour is very South Park, so if you bring the kids, expect foul language, sexual imagery, and blasphemy aplenty.
The touring cast does a mostly fantastic job of filling the Broadway cast’s well-polished shoes, the chorus is energetic and note-perfect. Kayla Pecchioni is a standout as the wide-eyed optimist Nabalungi (called all manner of incorrect names by the smitten Arnold); she has a beautiful voice that fills the hall. Jacques C. Smith, as her overprotective dad and guide to the missionaries, gives his character a mischievous strength, and Tobin is all blinding white teeth and awkward horror as his overconfident posturing leads to a wildly hilarious meltdown of faith.
Brown does well with the vocal demands of Cunningham, but could use a slightly more aggressive and distinctive weirdness beyond the character’s loneliness and love of sci-fi/fantasy – not a copy of role originator Josh Gad’s take, necessarily, but something more distinguishing than what we get. It is nice, however, to see the character develop as he starts to embrace his odd talents.
Sometimes, the show skirts the edge between satirizing some Western stereotypes of Africa and reinforcing other ones, and the ending is very quick and easy in comparison to the darker, more complex issues the show raises. It has its cake and eats it simultaneously by both criticizing magical thinking over concrete solutions and making its message about embracing the power of hope. But, fundamentally, this is still a pretty traditional musical comedy that doesn’t purport to solve these issues, and these are small gripes to append to a series of songs this funny and well-composed, and a show with a personality that is surprisingly sweet and gentle to its characters, given its coarse trappings.
If there’s anything I’m prone to proselytizing about, it’s the power of theatre. So I’ll just say: Seest Thou The Book of Mormon. If it proves one thing, it’s that there’s a hell of a lot of power in a good story.
- The Book of Mormon plays at the Ed Mirvish Theatre (244 Victoria St) until June 23rd, 2019.
- Show times are Tuesday-Saturday at 8:00pm, Saturday at 2:00pm, and Sunday at 1:30pm and 7:30pm.
- Tickets are $35-210 and can be purchased online, by calling 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, or at the Theatre Box Office.
- This play contains mature themes, strong language, sexual content, and the use of stage haze.
Photo of the 2017 touring cast by Julieta Cervantes