To men with suitcases greeted by a person in traditional African costume
Music, Musical theatre, News, Reviews

Spectacular musical but dated stereotypes

Review: Anne Garefino, Scott Rudin, Important Musicals and John Frost, The Book of Mormon ⋅
Crown Theatre, September 5 ⋅
Review by Erin Hutchinson ⋅

The love that Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone have for traditional musical theatre shines through in The Book of Mormon, with its big numbers and even bigger characters, and the audience lapped it up.

As you’d expect they would – after all, Perth fans of Parker and Stone, the creators of the phenomenal South Park and Lopez, the co-writer of Avenue Q, have been sitting on their hands waiting for The Book of Mormon to arrive here since it busted Broadway apart in 2011.

The story follows two young missionaries to Uganda, ready to spread the word of God as revealed by their ‘All-American’ prophet, Joseph Smith. The clean-cut high achiever Elder Price (Blake Bowden), is determined to achieve ‘awesomeness’, while his sidekick Elder Cunningham (Nyk Bielak), supports him along the way. Hardly surprisingly, their new home doesn’t meet their expectations, and the underdog Cunningham copes better with its pitfalls than his high-falutin’ superior.

The show’s disarming trick – hardly what you might expect from the resumé of its creators – is that it’s essentially a sweet story that romanticises finding your own truth in religion.

Perhaps that’s what makes some of the satire feel a little dated.

That’s not to say this isn’t a spectacular production. It sweeps you up with its glorious opening imagery, the catchy, expertly sung show tunes and the continually impressive choreography by Casey Nicholaw.

A colourful cast of dancers with a man in a tie standing centre stage
Blake Bowden, Nyk Bielak and Tigist Strode lead the company through catchy show tunes in Book of Mormon. Photo by Jeff Busby.

The set, by Scott Pask, is a visual feast, taking us through scene changes simply and with great impact even on the wide, narrow Crown Theatre stage that means the group missionary numbers couldn’t quite fill the space as effectively as they would a more conventional configuration.

Many of the songs are killers – with the comic chops of Parker and Stone, you wouldn’t expect any less. WAAPA graduate Joel Granger is a standout as the district leader Elder McKinley, showing his new missionaries how religion can help dismiss deep and distressing topics by thought suppression in Turn It Off. Bielak came into his own in the Act 1 finale Man Up where he ‘grew a pair’ (just like Jesus), and the pastiche dance moment in Spooky Mormon Hell Dream was cane-work heaven.

The nerdy references and guest appearances were giggleworthy, and the display of Australian and imported talent and tight ensemble work onstage was inspiring.

That said, some of the show’s really clever bits were washed aside by the stereotyped representations of the characters.

While we might take offense at its crass and crude humour (of which there is an abundance), we are a little desensitised to that by now – by South Park and its animated peers as much as anything else.

But where do we stand on broad, white brushstrokes of ‘uncultured’ African people, and is this legitimate satire or a shortcut to hollow laughs and cheap effect?

An African woman looks coyly at a man in a tie
Tigist Strode playing the stereotypical role of Nabulungi with Nyk Bielak. Photo by Jeff Busby

Okay, it’s not all Disney and The Lion King, but does it have to be an extreme depiction that felt lifted straight from Team America? And how must Tigist Strode feel playing Nabulungi, the only female lead, whose solo was beautifully sung but who essentially prostitutes herself to be saved by a white man who can’t even remember her name.

Everything dates. A generation grew up loving Parker and Stone’s South Park. Team America was hilarious and I still love Lopez’s Avenue Q, but our sense of humour and appreciation has changed and grown over the years, especially in the era of Trump, Johnson and others closer to home. It’s got to colour our point of view, even when we’re just out for an evening of fun.

That said, The Book of Mormon is a witty and wonderfully profane musical and worth you going to make up your own mind about.

And then, either way, buy the soundtrack.

The Book of Mormon continues at Crown Theatre until 17 November.

Pictured top L-R: Shauntelle Benjamin, Blake Bowden (Elder Price) and Nyk Bielak (Elder Cunningham. Photo: Jeff Busby.

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