The Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon is one of the biggest Broadway phenomenons of recent years. After its premier on Broadway in 2011, when it won the Tony Award for Best Musical, it has run to sold out audiences since with ticket prices reaching hundreds of dollars each. It’s London production reached similar heights of popularity and it was with great excitement and anticipation that it opened in Melbourne in January of this year. It’s had a sold out run all year with a transfer to Sydney planned for early 2018.
The story is of two young Mormon missionaries, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, who get sent to Uganda to preach the word and convert people to the Church of Latter Day Saints. There they encounter stiff resistance with the threat of AIDS, famine and a local warlord more pressing for the locals than anything the missionaries might have to say. The show, written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone as well as Robert Lopez, is crude, full of swearing and sexual innuendos and is slightly blasphemous (depending on who you talk to). It’s a bit strange that it has gained such a widespread acceptance. Yet at the heart of it all is a kind of sweet story about survival and acceptance.
For this production the American producers insisted, quite controversially, that the leads would be played by actors from the Broadway and US National Tours who have already played the roles. Ryan Bondy plays the overconfident and self-assured Elder Price. His performance is brilliant with a great acting ability and an interpretation of the role that has made it his own. At times he’s slightly lacking in vocals, particularly at the big belting moments, but he makes up for it with charisma. Less impressive is Nyk Bielak as the awkward and unsure Elder Cunningham. His performance is not that strong and it’s clear that all he’s trying to do is imitate Josh Gad’s, who originated the role, performance with little success. His solo numbers are good but don’t really reach any heights. I have a feeling the two Australian alternates, who I’ve seen in many other shows, would have done a much better job in both roles.
Incredibly impressive is Zahra Newman as the willing convert Nabulungi. We’re used to seeing her in dramatic, straight play roles so it’s incredible to hear her singing ability. He naivety yet determination is perfect for the role. Bert Labonté plays a very different part to his usual as Nabulungi’s father Mafala, it’s great that we get to see more of his comedic side in this role. Rowan Witt gives a stellar performance as the local Morman leader Elder McKinley, performing the parts with great camp charisma.
I’d forgotten from when I saw it on Broadway how much of an ensemble piece this show is, particularly for the other Mormon boys. Those chorus parts require a great deal of stamina and a massive dance ability, in a range of different styles, and it’s a credit to all of them at how well they deliver Casey Nicholaw’s challenging choreography. The production is a carbon copy of the original Broadway production with deceptively intricate sets by Scott Pask and a myriad of wonderful costumes by Ann Roth.
It’s great that Australia more and more is getting to experience these big budget Broadway shows with original productions touring here much more regularly than in years gone by. However, it’s a shame that these productions come with imported lead actors as well as imported sets and costumes because in Book of Mormon it’s the local talent that steals the show as the supporting characters rather than the American leads. I can’t help but think it would be different if it was completely local talent.