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Jared Gertner plays Elder Cunningham in The Book Of Mormon, playing at the Prince of Wales theatre (photo: Joan Marcus)

The Book Of Mormon

Published March 22, 2013

Here’s what you probably already know about The Book Of Mormon: 1. You can’t move in London without encountering one of its leaping Mormon adverts. 2. It won a clutch of Tony Awards when it premiered on Broadway. 3. It has a reputation as the most offensive musical to hit the West End… ever.

Here’s what you might not know. Cut away that offensive edge and you’ll find a story with a warm heart, sweet characters, some tough points to make and an astute philosophy on the nature of belief.

Let’s deal with the controversy first. If you like your comedy with as much bite as a heavily censored episode of The Vicar Of Dibley, The Book Of Mormon might be a stretch. With songs titles that translate as F*** You God and gags about behaving inappropriately with non-consenting frogs, it’s comedy that draws heavily from writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s background as creators of cult cartoon South Park.

Personally, I laughed like an atheist foghorn at a Tim Minchin gig, and I consider myself Christian.

These boundary-pushers – and even I winced on occasion, not at anything religious, but you have to work hard to work an AIDS epidemic into a joke, which they achieve while still hammering home a valid point – are all delivered in context, which is why Mormon never feels offensive for the sake of it.

Strip all of this away and you soon realise The Book Of Mormon is written by people who understand stories, the nature and power of storytelling and how to use characters we will recognise. There’s the jock destined for greatness (Gavin Creel feeling all-American yet secretly vulnerable as Elder Price), the nerdy underdog outsider (a hilarious Jared Gertner bringing brilliant levels of little brother annoyance to Elder Cunningham) and a female lead dreaming of a better life somewhere the grass is greener (a beautifully naïve and sympathetic Alexia Khadime as Nabalungi). The minute they are introduced, we know how their story will unfold, and it is a treat to watch it happen.

That story finds Elders Price and Cunningham, 19-year-old Mormons eager to make a difference, sent to Uganda where the reality of life and what they might accomplish catches up with them. Well, it catches up with Price, at least. Cunningham is a habitual liar and sci-fi geek whose overactive imagination becomes particularly handy.

It is in the big set piece songs that The Book Of Mormon really impresses. The witty and, yes, rude lyrics from Stone, Parker and Robert Lopez, who was also behind similarly irreverent hit musical Avenue Q, combining with Casey Nicholaw’s similarly witty choreography, performed by a cast as tightly drilled as… (well, I know how the Mormon writers would finish this metaphor), drawing regular rounds of rapturous applause.

The dancing devils of Spooky Mormon Hell Dream, the tap-dancing Elders of Turn It Off, the Wicked-esque stylings of You And Me (But Mostly Me) and the rock musical, coming-of-age grunt of first half closer Man Up all still stick in the mind.

Is The Book Of Mormon the savior of musical theatre as some of this week’s reports would have us believe? I’m not sure musical theatre needs saving, to be perfectly honest. But it will appeal to a new demographic in the same way that Avenue Q did, and it is a slick, witty production, full of joy and heart, with, on occasion, the type of gloriously irreverent, uncouth humour that spots the line of good taste and leaves it so far behind that even an all-seeing Heavenly Father might not be able to spot it.

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