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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Theatre review: The Book of Mormon trades insults with goodwill and utter delight

The Book of Mormon needs little introduction to most. After opening on Broadway in 2011 to equal critical acclaim and outrage, the comedy musical picked up dozens of awards including nine Tonys, four Laurence Oliviers, and a Grammy. The reputation created an electric anticipation in the opening night audience at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. The show rewarded expectations with its whip-smart comedy, lissome dances and extraordinary vocal performances.

For those unfamiliar with The Book of Mormon, the story follows two Mormon missionaries embarking on their two-year quest to bring the word of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to the masses in Uganda. The duo epitomizes the comedy trope of unequal compatriots: Elder Price is a handsome all-American success adored by all in his community. Where he’s overconfident, Elder Cunningham is overweight: an awkward, nervous disappointment with a penchant for telling lies.

When they arrive in Uganda, the reality of the hardships that the locals face causes conflict. Bringing the word of God to a community smited by AIDS, FGM, dictatorships and lurking diseases feels impossible. Meanwhile, a local woman, Nabulungi, embraces the new faith – but primarily to escape Uganda to travel to the paradise known as ‘Sal Tlay Ka Siti’ (Salt Lake City.) As expected, the Elders’ wrestling of both the harsh circumstances and their own faith results in drastically different results that show the true nature of each. It’s Cunningham who, albeit creatively, provides solace and solutions to the village.

The musical is often billed as “equal opportunities offence.” Those with sensitive constitutions should reconsider their tickets. At the heart of the success of the show is a commitment from writers Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez to poke fun at preconceptions and unscrutinized beliefs, from both the Mormon Church and broader society. “Turn It Off” suggests that pesky feelings such as homosexuality can be boxed and ‘put on the shelf’ – an actual suggestion in the Mormon Church. “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” brings to life the underlying fears of Elder Price (and anyone with a belief in such an afterlife) and – with garish costumes and absurd acts of lewdity – shows how preposterous such a worry is.

It’s not only the Mormon Church which is placed under scrutiny. The musical’s depiction of Africa is both rudimentary and sophisticated: poking fun at the privileged, often misunderstanding audience who has lived with misconceptions about the continent and its people throughout their lives. To this effect, the opening number set in Uganda, “”Hasa Diga Eebowai”  – which translates to “Fuck You, God” is a welcome nod to the similarities between all people, and our ability to thrive in truly difficult circumstances.

All this to say that the South Park creators’ script is airtight and – most impressively – critiques cultures without condemning them. The compassion clear in each line strengthens the show considerably.

A stellar cast is required to deliver such a lauded production. Broadway in Canada does so – and then some. Canada’s own Ryan Bondy embodies Elder Price as a wholesome yet proud lad with the world in his sights. As Elder Cunningham, Cody Jamieson Strand demonstrates both the discomfort of an awkward young man while tearing up the stage with impressive dance moves and a falsetto to be reckoned with. Candace Quarrels, as Nabulungi, delivers rich and seamless vocal performances throughout the show. Her voice is complemented by a talented chorus, who truly shine when performing gospel-inspired numbers, such as “Tomorrow is a Latter Day” and “Hello.”

How one can insult thousands of people through song and dance, yet still have a sense of goodwill and utter delight in the audience, is a question only answerable by The Book of Mormon creators. Enjoying their work is far easier: and highly recommended while it plays until September 4 in the city.

The Book of Mormon, book music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone. A Broadway Across Canada presentation. On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (649 Cambie St, Vancouver) until September 4. Visit for tickets and information.

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