Adelaide Festival Theatre
Until 11 Aug 2019

Review by Sarah Westgarth

It’s been eight years since ‘The Book of Mormon’ first premiered on Broadway, and after grossing over $500 million worldwide, winning nine Tony Awards, and receiving rave reviews all over the globe, Elders Cunningham and Price are saying “Hello!” to our very own Festival Theatre and the city is rejoicing. The first few weeks of performances have already sold out, and the rest of the run is going fast, with the cheap ticket lotteries drawing lines that snake around corner blocks.

This is one of the most successful musicals of all time, and from the opening moment when the doorbell rings and you are greeted with Elder Price’s manically smiling face, you understand why. The score is electric and catchy, the script hilarious and heartwarming. While it goes without saying that the show will not be for everybody, with its heavy adult content and religious themes, ‘The Book of Mormon’ is not to be dismissed as merely trying to push the envelope and provoke its audience. It is first and foremost a comedy, and much of its humour comes from the rigid and absurd ideas put forth by the Mormon church (which can easily be related to other institutionalised religions) but despite its heightened reality and exaggerated stakes, it is also a very human story about finding meaning, connection, and answers in a confused and scary world. The Mormons get a good deal of ribbing throughout, but the faithful are never portrayed as villainous; they’re doing what they believe is best with the information they have been given. Religion is not the enemy here, but rather closed-mindedness, tunnel vision and hubris are what the characters are battling. (Also a murderous evil warlord. That’s a pretty big obstacle.) It’s a story about the importance of stories, and having hope in even the darkest of places. It is, in a word, extraordinary.

‘The Book of Mormon’ is famously penned by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, best known as the creators of the animated comedy ‘South Park’, another work known for not pulling its punches when it comes to social issues, pop culture, or politics. Inspired after seeing ‘Avenue Q’ in 2008, Parker and Stone joined forces with composer Robert Lopez to create a musical based on The Church of Latter-day Saints. The result is the story of Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, two young American men about to undertake their first international missionary trip. While Price is held up as the pinnacle of faith and destined for glory, Cunningham is an insecure outsider who is fair less familiar with the tenets of their religion, and has an overactive imagination. Paired together and sent to Uganda, the two immediately encounter a world that their texts and training have not prepared them for. Dropped in a place where disease, famine and violence are rampant, and the locals take their rage out on God, Price finds his confidence shaken, while Cunningham’s enthusiasm (and tendency to lie) suddenly appears to be an asset. What follows is an exploration of the meaning of truth, friendship, and cross-cultural understanding; it is also hysterically funny.

The show represents efficient storytelling at its finest; there’s not a second that’s wasted or a song that drags. It clips along at a dynamic pace, never leaving the audience behind nor struggling to keep things moving. The songs bounce between genres as the mood demands, and every number somehow manages to be the highlight of the show. All of this is carried by an exceptional cast whose infectious energy, comedic character work and soaring vocals bring it all to life.

While it is likely that many audience members will be familiar with the original Broadway cast from the recording, or have seen other actors in the roles, Blake Bowden as Elder Price and Nik Bielak as Elder Cunningham will not be a disappointment, as they both capture the spirit of the source material as well as making the roles their own. Bowden brings just the right amount of overwrought enthusiasm, and his vocals have a resonance and personality that capture Elder Price’s unique combination of naïveté and confidence. (And it’s thrilling to see an Aussie in this iconic role!) By his side, Elder Cunningham could easily be reduced to the comic sidekick, but the character is much more than that; he is the emotional heart of the piece, and Bielak is a delight to watch onstage. He avoids the more obvious affectations, and instead uses his physicality and voice to earn some of the biggest laughs, but also to portray the character’s innate vulnerability. Bielak is so endearing in the role, and his Act 1 closer of ‘Man Up’ brings the house down.

While the show may centre around the two mission companions, the cast is full of performances that shine. Tigist Strode as Nabulungi has the audience in the palm of her hand for her solo numbers, and portrays the desperate hope felt by a character who feels the world has left them to suffer. She is consistently a winning presence onstage. Tyson Jennette as Mafala leads the Ugandan villagers in the most perfect joyful rage during ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’, and Joel Granger is an absolute scene stealer in his role as Elder McKinley. Beyond the principals, every member of the ensemble is outstanding and the most impressive and entertaining scenes come when the cast are working together. The choreography, originated by Casey Nicholaw, never fails to be captivating. The ensemble numbers for the Mormon boys – ‘Two By Two’, ‘I Am Africa’ and the remarkable ‘Turn It Off’ – are examples of how the show works as well as it does. The chemistry between the cast members is firing on all cylinders, the plot moves forward, and crucial information about the characters is revealed, all while dancing up a storm and bringing the laughs.

Contributing to all of this is the sensational production design, particularly when the lighting works its magic, responding to cues from the music to both comic and emotional effect. While no one would ever accuse the show of being subtle, the simple moments featuring one actor in a spotlight are just as dynamic as the larger scale scenes. That being said ‘Spooky Mormon Hell Dream’ remains one of the most spectacular musical numbers ever staged. It is truly a sight to behold.

If you know of ‘The Book of Mormon’ and have the means, you are likely already planning to see it (perhaps not for the first time after making an interstate or overseas trek in years past) but if you are in any way unsure, I cannot offer enough encouragement to get a ticket (before they completely sell out). Yes, if you are turned off by swearing, overtly sexual content, or any humour with a religious basis, this is probably not going to be your cup of tea. That being said, one of the fundamental messages of the show is about openness, and being willing to take on new ideas if they come from a good place. ‘The Book of Mormon’ doesn’t take itself too seriously, and asks its audience to do the same. And yet it remains a profound ode to the ideas of faith, connecting with people, and having hope when hope seems futile. The show is a joy from start to finish.

As soon as the bows began on opening night, there was not a second’s hesitation as the crowd leapt to their feet to give the cast a standing ovation. It was not the first time this has happened to ‘The Book of Mormon’, and it won’t be the last, but the magic of theatre is being there in that electrifying moment. And that is something incredible.