Saturday, 8 June 2013

Dumb, dumb, dumb, it's a load of fun

On the way to Africa – Elders Price and Cunningham. Pic: Joan Marcus
For all who are familiar with South Park, the creation of Colarado's own Trey Parker and Matt Stone, you won't need telling that the humour is of 'an adult' nature.

Or out another way, lots of rude words and an absolute rejection of anything even close to political correctness.

To be honest, it too me years to 'get' South Park. I'd cringe at anything that affected my own sensibilities. But then - finally - it dawned that everything is fair game for a reason, and that that in itself is wonderfully liberating and cathartic.

Parker and Stone are scrupulously fair in their use of their cartoon world to rip the almighty piss out of anything and everything. There are no sacred cows.

So when it was announced, early this year, that their Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, was coming to London, tickets were booked.

And yesterday - perfectly timed, as it happens, after yet another week of metadata and tagging and SEO and other such wearying geekiness - we made the short journey into the heart of the West End to see it.

First, a little note about the Prince of Wales Theatre. I last visited in about 1988, with my parents and sister, to see 'Allo 'Allo!, which was a hoot. But the building has been seriously renovated since and restored to wonderful, Art Deco glory.

Now, on to the show itself.

The story starts with a group of spotless, gleaming young Mormon men waiting to receive their missionary assignments. Well, spotless and with gleaming teeth and so on apart from one, Elder Cunningham, who is short, chubby, with curly hair and spectacles, is friendless, has parents who are ashamed of him and turns out to be an inveterate liar/fantasist.

When he's paired with Elder Price for a two-year stint converting the locals in Uganda, we're in for fun and games.

The pair join a group of other missionaries in a little village, where they find that 'Africa' isn't really like The Lion King. To start with, Aids is rampant, with some people trying distinctly unpleasant 'cures', and a murderous local warlord wanting to 'circumcise' every women in the area, blaming the female sex drive for Aids.

Suffice it to say that Parker and Stone do the remarkable - and make us care about the characters without ever taking the foot off the gas that drives their ridiculing of Mormonism in particular and religion and superstition more generally, together with Western/American attitudes toward and misconceptions about Africa.

The duo have targeted Mormons before - perhaps most particularly in the South Park episode, All About Mormons, which includes details of the Joseph Smith story, interspersed with a jolly musical ditty - 'dum dum dum dum dum' etc. Although what's actually being sung is not so much 'dum' and rather obviously 'dumb'.

Here, there are plenty of little interludes telling the story of how ancient Hebrews travel to the US, war a bit between themselves, and then leave behind golden tablets that an angel, centuries later, tells Joseph Smith to dig up (keeping the actual tablets to himself, of course).

And if there's no 'dumb dumb' ditty this time around, we're still left in no doubt that that is what the writers think.

Indeed, the show becomes a rather clever look at how a religion can develop. And it's giving little away to say that great fun can be had spotting and listening out for the pop culture references, from hobbits to Star Trek, which themselves make a dual point.

The music is a mixture of pretty conventional Broadway and a more rock-based approach, and it works well.

It's all bubbly and moves along at a cracking pace.

There are a few interesting references to spot too: the most obvious are those to The Lion King, which are for satirical purpose.

But a scene where the villagers present their version of the story of Smith for visiting Latter Day Saints hierarchy, is clearly a nod to the telling of Uncle Tom in The King and I (another culture-clash musical), right down to the use of a strip of cloth to represent a river.

And a line suddenly popped up - "what's so scary about that" - that struck me instantly as familiar. It took me until a few hours later to remember "what's so fearsome about that" from I Have Confidence, from The Sound of Music. Here too, it makes sense as a reference, since religion has held back both Maria's development and that of Elders Cunningham and Price. And all need confidence to get through their rite of passage.

Which all illustrates how, in many ways, The Book of Mormon is actually an incredibly conventional show - in spite of its very pointed assaults on a fair few subjects that some might find offensive.

Mind, as The Other Half reminded me, even in South Park itself, the boys often end an episode observing that they've 'learnt something today'. Parker and Stone's approach may seem to be a finger in the face of convention and tradition, but it isn't without a basic belief in humanity and what we might think of as 'civilised', tolerant attitudes.

Robert Lopez worked with Parker and Stone on the book, score and lyrics - and they're good.

It's primarily an ensemble piece - and the ensemble is flawless. But Gavin Creel as Elder Price and Jared Gertner as Elder Cunningham, are both excellent. I did find myself wondering if the casting adverts specified white makes of a certain type, with Osmond teeth, apart from for Cunningham.

Special mentions also to Giles Terera as the head man in the village, and Chris Jarman as the warlord.

Perhaps it's not for the easily-offended - a man across the aisle from me cracked but a single smile during the entire performance and didn't applaud at the end: The Other Half speculated that he was possibly a religious leader come to look, possibly in search of offence.

The Daily Telegraph and that paragon of upstanding morality, the Daily Mail, both disliked it. Which should tell you something. The Mail, in a particularly outraged rant shortly after it opened, revealed that it spectacularly missed the point of some of the jokes. Or perhaps that simply made for more sensationalist copy.

For the record, if you're not familiar with South Park, there is no mainstream religion that they have not ridiculed – and that includes Islam (in episodes both before 9/11 and after the cartoons debacle). So claims that Mormons are a 'soft target' and they wouldn't go for other ones are fatally flawed.

Mormons themselves seem to be taking it in smiling stride. The Church of the Latter Day Saints has three full-page adverts in the programme, and has also taken out ads on London buses.

A damned good evening's entertainment. If you get the chance - get along to see it.

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