Review: Tap Dancing and Political Incorrectness in ‘Book of Mormon’ | By Mahsa Toghrai

It’s really no surprise that a musical by the creators of “South Park”, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, features a song sending a less-than-flattering message to God (Hasa Diga Eebowai”–does not translate to “no worries for the rest of your days”), what is surprising that such a musical has won nine Tony Awards since its debut in 2011.

Billy Harrigan Tighe as Elder Price--the handsome, devout missionary who leads in the first act but spends most of the second act... otherwise engaged. Credit: Johan Persson
Billy Harrigan Tighe as Elder Price–the handsome, devout missionary who leads in the first act but spends most of the second act… otherwise engaged. Credit: Johan Persson

But such is the story of Book of Mormon–featured now at the Jubilee Auditorium until this Sunday–featuring a cast of white mormon missionaries and Ugandan villagers who, through singing an album’s worth of some of the crassest songs you’ve heard, learn to… something. It’s hard to glean a parable from the female genital mutilation storyline, or the countless AIDS and rape jokes, or the gentle sort of white Christian racism that elicits awkward chuckles from anyone who is not white or Christian. But the undeniably-talented cast members of this touring production don’t deserve to be crucified over the sins of Parker and Stone.

But enough with the religion jokes.

There’s a reason Book of Mormon remains one of Broadway’s highest-grossing shows, and that’s because it does, for the most part, manage to cleverly satirize religion and racial ignorance here in the West. Along with dubious history lessons, Book of Mormon pokes fun at how conservative Christians regard homosexuality (“Imagine that your brain is made of tiny boxes,” suggests an Elder of questionable sexual orientation. “Find the box that’s gay and crush it.”), and how Africa, Africans, and even African-Americans are stereotyped by the white folk. Young Elder Cunningham, for example, finds himself infatuated with the beautiful Nabulungi but struggles to even learn her name, calling her “Jon Bon Jovi”, “Neosporin”, “Neutrogena”, “Nelly Furtado”, and most notably “Necrophilia”. (This is an even greater crime in the light of the performance by Alexandra Ncube, whose Nabulungi is as equally engaging convincing a village-ful of people to follow her into Mormon-hood as she is nailing her solo “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”.)

It should be noted that despite acknowledging certain sexist beliefs, Book of Mormon features only one major female character (the idealistic, determined Nabulungi) and only five other female speaking

Elder Cunningham attempts to convert an entire village by putting a  spin on parable. Credit: Joan Marcus
Elder Cunningham attempts to convert an entire village by putting a spin on parable. Credit: Joan Marcus

roles amidst a cast of a dozen male missionaries and another dozen male Ugandan converts. And while racism is also used as a comedic tool, the majority of the African characters are used as vessels for various disease-related jokes or ghastly caricatures of African mercenaries while the very white Elders Cunningham and Price demonstrate–gasp!–character growth.

From a technical perspective, meanwhile, this production is a well-oiled machine of set changes, choreography, and costume changes. The missionary training centre is transformed into rural Uganda, upstate New York, and even Hell with stunning ease. The choreography, while not inventive, is brilliantly executed. And costumes, while stifled somewhat by the iconic Mormon missionary uniform, are at their best in fictional Uganda and the more outlandish sequences of “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” and “Making Things Up Again”.

All in all, the talented cast and crew of this production of Book of Mormon present a vivid, delightful show with the seeming ease of old pros, and though they almost manage to overshadow the script’s shortfalls, they still occasionally fall victim to the tired running gags and cop-out stereotypes that are characteristic of Parker and Stone’s other works.

Book of Mormon will show nightly at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium until March 29th.

All photos courtesy of Bottom Line Productions. Banner credit to Joan Marcus. 

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