BWW Review: THE BOOK OF MORMON at Adelaide Festival Theatre

BWW Review: THE BOOK OF MORMON at Adelaide Festival TheatreReviewed by Barry Lenny, Saturday 29th June 2019.

The Book of Mormon, winner of numerous Tony, Laurence Olivier, Grammy, and Drama Desk Awards, as well as a string of Helpmann Awards from its Melbourne season, has played to packed houses and has received great reviews worldwide since it was first staged in 2011. It has finally arrived in Adelaide and, unsurprisingly, tickets have been selling like hotcakes. Opening night was, of course, sold out, and a good few patrons were back for another look, impatiently having already been interstate to see this production before it came here.

The book, music, and lyrics were created by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone. Parker and Stone are the writers of South Park, and Lopez was involved in writing the music for Avenue Q, so a high level of satire was both anticipated and delivered as they turn their attention to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, known colloquially as the Mormons. The production was co-directed by Parker and Casey Nicholaw, the latter also choreographing the work, and musical direction by Stephen Oremus, who also wrote the orchestrations with Larry Hochman.

Elder Price had prayed to be sent to Orlando, Florida, to spend his two-year mission, but he and his paired missionary, Elder Arnold Cunningham are, instead, sent to Uganda to find converts to their particular brand of religion. This Odd Couple of overly enthusiastic, but naïve god-botherers, quickly realise that they are way out of their depths. They are not in Salt Lake City any more, Toto.

They find that everything is being controlled by a local warlord, General Butt-Fucking Naked, whose soldiers rob them before they even get to the village where they are to work. They are met at the village by Mafala Hatimbi, and his daughter, Nabulungi and come face to face with poverty, AIDS, and violence, their beliefs offering nothing to the people they have been sent to recruit. The song sung by the Ugandans, Hasa Diga Eebowai, is joined by Elders Price and Cunningham, until they are told the English interpretation; "Fuck you, God". The General arrives, demanding all women be subjected to genital mutilation, and executes the villager who stands up to him. The two newly appointed Elders come to understand in that moment how futile their mission amongst these people is going to be.

They discover that Elder McKinley, who is already there as the district leader of a team of missionaries, has failed to find a single convert to baptise, whilst desperately denying his homosexuality. To make matters worse, the mission president has asked for a progress report. Price loses faith in his mission and determines to request a transfer to Orlando, leaving Cunningham in a quandary, trying to carry on alone, and improvising ludicrously on his interpretation of the text, when talking to the villagers.

It ridicules racism, sexism, hypocrisy, indoctrination, it is more camp than a Boy Scout's Jamboree, and it is filled with a string of great production numbers, so it has something for everybody, and it even includes a tap number. The laughter and applause kept going from start to finish.

The clean-cut all-American boy, Elder Price, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with the cheesiest of grins as he practices introducing himself to those who open their doors to him, is played by Blake Bowden. Price's simplistic views and expectations for his mission crumble in the face of the Ugandan reality and this provides Bowden with plenty of opportunities to display his comic skills, as well as his fine vocal talent.

Elder Arnold Cunningham, who gives the impression that he has somehow been caught up in the whole religion and swept along without the slightest idea of what it is all about, is played by Nyk Bielak, creating a character who is as keen as mustard, and absolutely clueless. Not having actually read the Book, his ever more wild extemporisations have the audience in fits of laughter. He, too, sings up a storm.

The third main character, Nabulungi, is played by Tigist Strode, in a delightful interpretation of the role. Nabulungi is the symbol of hope for the villagers and, as it turns out, also for the Mormon missionaries, and Strode gives a sensational performance.

Tyson Jennette brings a sympathetic reading to the role of Mafala Hatimbi and Augustin Aziz Tchantcho plays the General, the villain of the piece, neatly making the transition from monster to comical convert. Elder McKinley is a gem of a role, and Joel Granger makes full use of all of the hilarity that it offers.

Most importantly, though, this is a very busy show for the ensemble, and what an ensemble it is. The precision in the dance routines and the strength of the singing is impeccable, with quite a few of the ensemble also playing smaller roles.

Scott Pask's set design and Brian MacDevitt's elaborate lighting design go hand in hand to create a visual feast, with costumes by Ann Roth completing the spectacle. Musical Director and first keyboard player, David Young, with expatriate Adelaide pianist, Matthew Carey, on second keyboard as Assistant MD, leads a small orchestra consisting of some of Adelaide's finest musicians who do a superb job, continuing to play after the final curtain as the audience leaves. Hang on at the end for some more great music. Brian Ronan's sound gives a consistently fine mix, too.

The Book of Mormon has been a long time coming to Adelaide, but it was well worth the wait. Many of the audience had seen it before, interstate, and will no doubt see it again before it closes here. Those seeing it for the first time are also likely to book to see it again, so don't delay in getting your own tickets.

Photography, Jeff Busby

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