Touring – reviewed at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
I want to start by saying how happy I am to be back reviewing musical theatre. How happy I am the big tours are back and how overjoyed I was to be back in my home turf of the Wales Millennium reviewing a show. To see a full audience in there, enjoying a musical, was joy.
You’ll have noticed, unlike most reviews I write for theatre, here I’ve started in the first person. That’s because as much as I wanted to write a standard review for this, I found myself wrestling with the questions of – can I just ignore the elements of this show I now find myself asking questions about? Can I put aside the discomfort I feel at it and just review it as a musical? In this case, the answer was no.
I don’t have all the answers, I’ve instead wrestled my way through them here- asking myself is it just me? Or is this a bigger question about this musical and others?
I’ve also sat and deliberated whether to write this version of it, because I thought ‘what if that means I stop getting invited as a reviewer’…but I sat there debating with myself the entire time ‘do I find this funny?’ ‘should I find this funny and I’ve worked my way up as a reviewer by being honest with myself and readers (and I don’t flatter myself I have great influence over anyone, you’re your own people). So instead of a traditional review, I’ve written about what I wrestled with.
I also need to preface this by saying this is a flawless production. The cast led by Robert Colvin as Elder Price and Robert Colvin as Elder Cunningham are all truly brilliant. The ensemble to weave in and out of various Mormon and increasingly ridiculous other roles are also universally brilliant. While Aviva Tulley as Nabulungi gets to give rare in this show beautiful performances of the ballads in the piece while balancing some brilliant comedic timing and skills amidst a male-dominated piece.
The thing that Mormon excels at is knowing the musical theatre form. So much so that I use it to teach musical theatre form. Forgive me a nerdy digression, but the way in which Mormon takes both the structure of a musical- things like the opening number, I want song, classic love song, and plays with their form in structure and style to form the parody numbers…. without actually feeling like direct parodies is skilfully executed.
As for the humour of the show, I spent much of it having a moral occasionally existential crisis.
Because we can’t I don’t think in 2021, look at Mormon without asking ‘Who is this humour at the expense of’ and asking ourselves ‘is this ok?’ I can’t help but be one of those annoying Millennials who questions such things, but really is Book of Mormon still something we want or need in theatre?
Now I’m not talking about the crude and rude jokes. Personally, I think more musicals should include lyrics about both scrotums and the c-word. I love a really filthy joke. I love a good swear. I think too Parker/Stone in their other endeavours excel when they’re being frankly, really disgusting, and maybe actually Mormon would benefit from more of that? Look more scrotum jokes and c-words in musicals, I stand by it ok?
We also know that the Frat-boy style of Parker/Stone’s humour probably isn’t supposed to be over-thought. We also know that they are equal-opportunities offenders too- nobody has ever been off limits, and if you’re going to use that style of humour that is the way to do it. A classic example in Mormon is Spooky Mormon Hell Dream where we see Hitler, along with OJ Simpson’s lawyer erm ‘dancing’ (yes let’s say ‘dancing’) with the devil as well.
Similarly, much of the humour of Mormon is directed at the incompetence of the Mormons themselves. And actually when we get to the end of Act 2, the ‘twist’ of sorts is that indeed Elder Cunningham’s mish-mash of made up religion and Star Wars (now with added Marvel references actually) has the same effect on the villagers as actual Mormon texts would. Underneath the filth, the offensive material is in fact a decent moral lesson; that doing good and helping people should be the mission, and it doesn’t matter what stories you tell yourselves to get it done. The story pokes fun at Mormons for making up their religion, while showing that it doesn’t matter if you make it up, if something good comes out of it.
So why does Mormon make me uncomfortable? Am I just a too woke for my own good Millennial? Am I just devoid of humour?
Maybe, possibly both.
On the humour front, a simple no, my humour is just different. Look I’m a comedy nerd. I know my comedy- and I know what Parker and Stone do, and they’re damn good at it. They just don’t tickle my particular funny bone for the most part. That said, I do enjoy their pop culture references, and the way they did incorporate Mormon stories and musical tropes for satire. There is cleverness in crudeness, it’s just not perhaps for me. It was for many of the people around me including my companion. And on that level, I’m not here to judge, humour is so subjective and there’s no high and low in my opinion.
What does make me pause and take stock is, yes my millennial wokeness existential crisis; should we laugh at this- and if I’m not laughing at it and everyone else is what does that mean? I don’t have the answers. But I do know that Mormon is written by two white people, and while Robert Lopez as someone of Filipino descent is not white, he’s also not Black, and this show does rest heavily on making jokes at Black, specifically African folks expense. I don’t think there’s any way to spin that. It doesn’t exclusively joke at their expense as I’ve said, but it does do that. It’s not my place as a white woman to pass judgement on that, other than to say, ‘should we be having a conversation with our Black musical theatre makers about this?’ and I think we should. Does Mormon have a place? Or should we retire it? I don’t know.
I do know too, that despite Mormonism having some…. questionable practices (I think as a queer woman I can say that too, heck as a woman I can probably say that). And they are not above criticism (every religion in the world in fact is not) …again the way it sits with me, that a faith shared by people is subject to mockery….I don’t know am I too sensitive? Maybe. It does spend a good chunk of time mocking the cluelessness of white men barrelling into something and not having a clue what they’re doing, and that is of course a very valid message. And the message ultimately as above is that the way we treat people is more important than religious stories. And maybe (maybe) we stretch the metaphor to say it’s mocking all religions. But really the average audience member won’t overthink it to that degree.
What the average musical audience member sees is a show that mocks a religious group (often of people born into it with no choice in the matter too, as with most religions) and mocks a village in Africa, that’s styled yes to look like all the cliches. That the people are mocked for being ignorant of the outside world…and where AIDS is a joke. Admittedly, as a scholar of AIDS representations in theatre, this is my breaking point or break up point with Mormon.
For context, theatre has been since the start, a tool for activism in responses to AIDS. It was a frontline activist response in the early years of the pandemic, a means for activism, mourning and information sharing. I think that’s why it feels particularly crude a tool and not in a good way, to have the villagers in Mormon constantly joke about their AIDS in songs. For many theatre was a refuge a place where AIDS could be talked about, away from much of the prejudices of the wider world. In productions like Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart for example currently in revival at the National Theatre, the stage was a space to talk openly, honestly about AIDS, ask for help, scream in anger and grief. And I personally can’t quite get to using AIDS as a punchline in a song.
I want so badly to like Mormon. It’s that musical you tell people who don’t like musicals that they’ll have a good time at. It’s so clever in many ways- musically I cannot fault it. I cannot fault its cleverness, its knowledge of the genre and the way it plays with that is at times nothing short of sublime. It knows its form, it knows itself. It’s also immaculately produced and put together as only the best of Broadway can be often. Again it knows itself- from well-timed ballads to perfectly executed tap routines.
In its crude humour too there is a level of sophistication. In comedy terms, knowing when to deploy true filth, or a line that makes an audience recoil and laughs at once is a skill. It’s not a humour for everyone but it’s still a skill. I stand by that more musicals should sing about scrotums and the c-word.
But in 2021 can I get past the parts that make me uncomfortable? No. Because it’s not uncomfortable in a good way, or a way that makes or asks us to think and wonder or change like good theatre of that kind does. It’s uncomfortable in a way that asks, is it time for the Mormons to retire their mission? And the answer is perhaps yes. My problems aren’t with the elements that Parker and Stone deliberately try and make us recoil with- the gross-outs and the swears and yes, the sex with Hitler in Hell. It’s the bits they didn’t think were offensive when they wrote it, and that we have perhaps, or at least should have outgrown.
I’ll end this as I started, with the reflection that it’s so good to be back at the theatre. To be back at Musical theatre. And I hope that we’re part of a time where I can reflect, have an existential crisis and ask, what are we saying with theatre?
But also to say, that Mormon has got hundreds if not thousands of folks who ‘don’t like musicals’ to go to see a musical over the years. And that’s important too. For all the Stag parties and 40th Birthdays of ‘lads’ who might think Musicals are a bit ‘girly’ who went for the South Park guys. That matters too. It’s not a zero-sum game of one point in one column means it should be erased from history. Just because it’s not my thing doesn’t mean in this instance we should just, as the phrase goes ‘cancel’ it. But I think it’s right we interrogate things, ask questions of our responses. Even if there’s no answer.
I’ll say too that the point of ‘offensive’ humour of the kind Parker and Stone made their name on is to get people talking, and its done just that. I went, and I found out for myself whether Mormon was my ‘Orlando’ or ‘Spooky Mormon Hell Dream’ and you should do the same; make up your mind yourself. Just maybe don’t sing the songs to your kids after…
I wish the Mormons well on their mission. I think we should continue to ask questions of older works, and view them in context of when, and by who they were made. But I also say, celebrate musical theatre, and a return to it whoever rings your doorbell.
Book of Mormon is at Wales Millenium Centre until 30th October. Tickets here.
Full UK Tour listing at https://thebookofmormonmusical.com/
‘I can’t help but ask: is this humour we still want or need in theatre?’ @EmiGarside has a bit of a moral crisis reviewing @bookofmormonuk on tour but is overjoyed to be back at @TheCentre. #TheBookOfMormon #Cardiff #theatrereviews