Theatre

The Book of Mormon, from the creators of South Park, is a blasphemous riot of bad taste, making it a musical not to be missed. By Peter Craven.

The Book of Mormon

Zahra Newman and A. J. Holmes in The Book of Mormon
Credit: JEFF BUSBY

What black magic of the mind went into the American water supply when Trey Parker and Matt Stone dreamt up South Park and perpetrated it on the nation and the world. If The Simpsons was the humane side of a situation comedy writ cartoonish, South Park was the pure nihilistic anarchy of a comedy so black and so deeply and unbelievably anti-humanistic that you could only laugh and laugh yourself stupid as Kenny was killed yet again and everyone, but especially Cartman, was unimaginably worse than anyone could ever dream and the most ghastly typologies in the world were transformed by a pure hectic imaginative hellishness. The upshot was somehow deeply consoling, as if even a Donald Trump around the corner was no less inconceivable than the movie version of South Park in which the Devil was fucking Saddam Hussein and all the Americans were singing a song of hate at Canada.

Well, Stone and Parker have gone on to concoct songs aplenty with the help of Robert Lopez, who wrote Avenue Q, in The Book of Mormon, which is a sumptuously scurrilous show that is riotously blasphemous and such a sustained exercise in bad taste and taboo-breaking that it comes across as a blessed relief in troubled times. It is co-directed (with Parker)and choreographed – pretty magically – by Casey Nicholaw, who did The Drowsy Chaperone on Broadway and who knows how to turn a dance routine on its head. And it is performed flawlessly by a superb cast led by two young North Americans, with A. J. Holmes as the triumphant nerd and the Canadian Ryan Bondy as the man born to be king who gets a book of Mormon shoved up his arse. The supporting cast is flawless, with Zahra Newman ravishingly grand as the girl in Uganda who escapes circumcision and undergoes baptism as if it were a sexual initiation executed by angels.

It’s all like that and it’s a delight. The late David Foster Wallace – the author of Infinite Jest, the most challenging and arguably the greatest work of fiction to come out of America in the past generation – said once in his thoughtful way that it was hard to be a postmodern ironist critiquing an America whose popular culture was already ironising itself to buggery. How do you do a cartoon of a cartoon?

Or if your comic intellect is brutal enough – and Matt Stone and Trey Parker have never been accused of tender-mindedness – how do you parody Mormonism, never mind that there’s nothing ironic or postmodern about its self-contemplation. Never mind that Mitt Romney, the conservative with the offbeat religion, is now looking like the Republican who might have been the saviour of the liberty and political principles we treasure. Never mind, either – which is perhaps closer to Stone and Parker’s deep and dazzling cynicism – that Edmund Wilson in The Dead Sea Scrolls sees a family resemblance, not just a parody, between the story of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and the Gospel story.

It hardly matters because The Book of Mormon is satirical anarchy transfigured into a form of pure pleasure: it’s a musical, for heaven’s sake. Somehow, the idea of America as a godly nation, the land of the religious right and religion generally, gets a marvellous objective correlative in this thrilling atrocity of a good-time show.

Ryan Bondy is the alpha male school captain Mormon who wants to realise his destiny by being made a missionary to Orlando, Florida. Instead he is sent to Uganda in the clinging company of A. J. Holmes, who adores him and who has never had a best friend, let alone something more down and dirty, but who whispers sweet nothings to him as they lie in their chaste shared bed in their long johns.

Africa turns out to be a walking parody of all its real and dreadful woes – far too close for comfort, but then the chief comfort of The Book of Mormon is that its fundamental structures, the foundation upon which it rests, is unspeakable bad taste. Everyone in the primitive village in Uganda has AIDS or worse, or nearly everyone. There is a loudmouthed wild-eyed man who professes to be a doctor of medicine and keeps screaming, “I have maggots in my scrotum.” Oh, yes, and there’s a recurrent lay-wasting warlord who threatens to circumcise and cut off the clitorises of all the girls and who is known as General Buttfuckingnaked.

Africa is presented as a tropical dream of spacious ghastliness and everyone sings a catchy chorus in an African language, which they joyfully, with radiant faces, declare means “Fuck you, God”.

The linchpin of the plot – which is as much a send-up of cornball Broadway musical comedy as the moronic Mormonism is a send-up of the madness of religious America – is that the friendless nerd not only falls for the girl but has her wide-eyed with delight at being baptised by him.

He’s too dumb even to know his Mormon dogma and tells her the essence of religion is all about fucking frogs.

Their coming together, or not, over a tub of spilt water is wonderfully funny and has just enough of a thread of genuine touch-and-go boy-meets-girl emotion to make the audience tremble with delight even as it neighs with laughter.

Holmes is dazzlingly real as the boy who comes through – it’s as good a performance of the role as you would ever hope to see – and it makes sense that he has played it in New York and London. He is homely, constantly has his mouth open, as if for the benefit of any especially deadly virus-mutating African flies in the vicinity, and yet he looks irrepressibly likeable and completely – or let’s say palpably – half-real for seconds on end, which is the essence of the South Park trick. And in a show that is a triumph of style and schematism, his doggy boy-next-door quality is so recognisable it makes you gasp.

The performance is a triumph of American naturalism even as it is, at the same time, a triumph of clowning. Ryan Bondy is a shade closer to his prototype but is very good, too – there’s nothing like a leading man who’s mentally impeded – and Bondy handles the triumphs and miseries of his character with great style.

Then there’s Zahra Newman, whose performance as Nabulungi – her halfwit of a swain keeps calling her Neutrogena and Nutella and every other n-word he can conjure: it’s one of those Stone–Parker equivalents to recurrent Homeric epithets – confirms predictions that she really will do Annie Get Your Gun and Saint Joan before she ascends to Cleopatra and Clytemnestra. Her smile is as broad and fatuous, as gleaming and good-hearted, as any dream possibly could be, and when she sings in disillusion and heartbreak, it is with the unmistakeable authority of one of the natural-born stars of the theatre.

Alongside her in the deeply offensive depiction of an African village, Bert LaBonté is everything he should be as Nabulungi’s father, and the general is played by Augustin Aziz Tchantcho with great charm and menace.

The Book of Mormon is impossible not to like and not to like a lot. I say this as someone who has whatever poor reverence I can muster for old-time religion and someone who has encountered some very nice people of Mormon background. But this is a musical that looks into the black heart of the universe and comes up smiling and shrieking with laughter. Stone and Parker are so clever and so devastating in their comic knowingness that they even include a send-up of the kind of liberal religious perspectives – “we dine with agnostics” – that see everything as metaphor.

The Book of Mormon will especially appeal to the young because its comedy withers the world. But Lopez’s tunes are good and Nicholaw’s choreography is a joyous scintillating exercise in style that remembers Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse and all the rest of them.

This is one of the most inventive musicals we’ve seen in an age. Its image of America, and the America inside us, is creepy beyond belief. All you can do is laugh because its Mormonism really is a comprehensive metaphor for all our frolics and follies.

 

Arts Diary

BALLET The Red Detachment of Women

Arts Centre, Melbourne, February 15-18

THEATRE The Merry Wives of Windsor

Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, Hobart, until March 4

FESTIVAL Brisbane Street Arts Festival

Venues throughout Brisbane, until March 3

THEATRE The Homosexuals, or “Faggots”

Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, February 17-March 12

FESTIVAL National Multicultural Festival

City Centre, Canberra, February 17-19

FESTIVAL St Kilda Festival

St Kilda, Melbourne, February 12

Last chance

LITERATURE Jaipur Literature Festival

Federation Square, Melbourne, February 11-12

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 11, 2017 as "Mormon troll". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.

Continue reading your one free article for the week