Who says religion can't be fun as the Ugandan missionaries launch into their tap number watched by Elders Price and Cunningham. Pictures: Paul Coltas

The Book of Mormon

Birmingham Hippodrome


(and those are stars not literary bleep asterisks in case you were wondering)

When it comes to hype this is a show that not only lives up to it but even surpasses pretty much everything that has been said and written about it - simply the landmark musical, so far, of the 21st century.

It is new, original, witty, clever, tears rolling down your cheeks funny, has some great songs, a strong plot and wonderful performances, and that is only half of it.

It was written by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone, with Parker and Stone the creators of South Park and Lopez co-writer of the songs of Avenue Q, so if you have ever come across Stan, Kyle, Eric and Kenny in Colorado or Princeton and Trekkie Monster and co in New York, you will know that there is also profanity, lots of it, a complete disregard for political correctness, which leaves us laughing at things that would give the PC police apoplexy, black humour, and, as this is satirising a whole religion of 15 million or so souls, to say is it is irreverent would hardly come close.

The story is simple. Another course of missionary training for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Salt Lake City is over and the star pupil Kevin Price, now Elder Price, leads his class in their doorbell ringing anthem of Hello. It is a wonderful performance from Robert Colvin as the pompous, self-obsessed missionary whose world is centred around . . . Kevin Price.

The church has paired Elder Price with Elder Arnold Cunningham, a somewhat self-doubting individual with a propensity to tell catering size porkies which are not so much lies as the creation of a parallel universe.

Connor Peirson is superb in the role and having been in the show on Broadway that could perhaps explain his missionary zeal in spreading the word to Brum.

Elder Price wants to be sent to Florida, for reasons he will tell you about if you can grab a ticket, while Elder Cunningham . . . he just wants to follow, joining the egocentric Elder Price singing You and Me (but mostly me). He simply wants a friend.

lion king despart

Robert Colvin's Elder Price and Conner Peirson's Elder Cunningham are give a Lion King send off in the incongruous  setting of Salt Lake International airport.

Sadly, the nearest they get to Florida is as they fly over it on their way to . . . Uganda, (which will amuse Private Eye readers), and not even to the, relative, sophistication of Kampala, but some God forsaken (quite literally) collection of mud huts two days from the capital ruled by the brutal one-eyed warlord General Butt-f***ing Naked, played by the brooding Thomas Vernal.

Vernal is no stranger to Brum, incidentally, having been in The Wizard of Oz and One Love: The Bob Marley Musical productions at Birmingham Rep.

Our hapless pair are robbed by the General’s thugs on arrival then greeted by Mafala Hatimbi, played by RSC actor Ewen Cummins, another familiar with the city having been in Threepenny Opera at the Rep.

Like all great comedy there are hints of pathos and Mafala leads the villagers in a song cataloguing their miserable lives in a litany of epithets. It is very funny and we laugh along but the words of misery are still there as they sing Hasa Diga Eebowai which is a sort of African calypso, with hasa diga eebowai being the phrase they use to lift their spirit, a sort of God’s will sentiment . . . sort of, except the translation is somewhat less complimentary and far more critical of the Almighty – with that F word thrown in again.

The pair also meet another star of the show, the lovely Nicole-lily Baisden, as Nabulungi, or any word beginning with N, as Elder Cunningham tries to get his head around her name, and indeed around her, not surprising as she is a very attractive girl, or “she's such a hot shade of black, she's like a latte.” as he puts it. Did I mention Parker and Stone don’t do politically correct?

She leads them to their mission HQ where they meet the rest of their district team lead by Elder McKinley in the experienced hands of Will Hawksworth as the repressed gay missionary who tries to teach the new pair thought control with Turn it off, where among battered wives, deaths from cancer and other such cheery subjects, we also get McKinley’s ever so un-pc view on being gay . . .

The musical doesn’t shy away from anything with the General and his army – both of them – arriving to demand female circumcision of every girl in the village – not an area ripe for humour – but FGM is a day to day nightmare for many girls in Africa and the third world and, like South Park, The Book of Mormon, drops in real issues which are not jokes, but jolts that strike home, killing laughter dead.

When a villager objects he is summarily shot dead by the General - not a lot of laughs there either - and the laughs are a little uncomfortable when Nabulungi sings the bittersweet Sal Tlay Ka Siti. Nicole-Lily Baisden has a lovely voice and the song is one of the show’s highlight.

arnold and Nabulungi

Baptism at first sight with Nicole-Lily Baisden as Nabulungi and Elder Cunningham

We laugh at the pronunciation of Salt Lake City and Ooh-Tah but the real words and sentiments of the song are back to the essential of great comedy, pathos, with Sal Tlay Ka Siti a place with “a Red Cross on every corner with all the flour you can eat” and “flies don't bite your eyeballs and human life has worth”. The simple dream of a decent, safe life without war lords, pain, poverty, hunger and disease shared by far, far too many in this world.

The district have not been doing too well in recruitment until Elder Cunningham weighs in with his own interpretation of The Book of Mormon. Probably because of reasons of space, no doubt, the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, missed out references to Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and the like, and the sexual predilections and curative properties of frogs.

Not to worry, with Elder Cunningham’s restoration of these missing passages The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints becomes the hottest pew in town.

Along the way we have the Making Things Up Again dream for Elder Cunningham and the Spooky Mormon Hell Dream for Elder Price which involve among others Lucifer, Hobbits, Darth Vader, Yoda, Ghengis Khan, Hitler, Star Trek’s Nyota Uhura, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, and a guest appearance by Jesus.

Elder Price attempts to convert the General, a noble act which results in him having to have his copy of The Book of Mormon surgically removed, presumably by the village doctor, played by Tre Copeland-Williams, who is suffering from  . . . let’s just say it is not pleasant, different yes, pleasant no.

Then we have Elder Cunningham’s first baptism of Nabulungi, her first time as well, and we can all see where this is going can’t we. It doesn’t actually go there, but Baptise Me certainly does.

There is good support from the likes of Johnathan Tweedie who pops up as Price’s dad, Joseph Smith and Mission President and an excellent ensemble who give us everything from devils to a song and dance tap number and like all good musicals it all comes right, with a little twist, at the end with everyone living happily ever after with another blast of Tomorrow is a Latter Day and Hello from a new batch of Ugandan missionaries.

It is all carried along with an excellent eight piece band under assistant musical director Mike Cotton and a mention too for the brilliant lighting design of Brian MacDevitt which demands banks of extra lights in the circle and boxes and some technically complex effects – as well as two glitter balls and a golden herald at the point of the stained glass proscenium.

Indeed all the technicals are impressive with well-balanced sound from Brian Ronan, lovely costumes from Ann Roth and a wonderful set design from Scott Pask which could take us from Salt Lake City to the departure lounge for AfricaAir at gate Z 62 – which is probably so far from the terminal it is out of state - to the depressing Ugandan village - along with scenic stop overs and historical re-enactment’s in Upper State New York where Jesus arrived for the three days after the crucifixion – a little known and probably disputed fact among the rest of Christianity.

Casey Nicholaw, who also directed with Tray Parker, has created choreography which is fun from tap to terror(ish) with the devils, always interesting and it all combines to create a show bristling with quality and packed with Broadway and West End production values.

Yes, there is profanity, taste at times would be questionable in any other context, it is irreverent, takes outrageous to new levels, but it is glorious, wonderful, original fun – with little hidden barbs that prick your conscience amid the laughter. Comedy at its best in a musical with heart. One to savour and one definitely not to miss. To 28-03-20

Roger Clarke


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