Garth Jones reviews The Book of Mormon.
Religious satire has existed for millennia, pre-dating Christianity itself.
From the work of Greek playwright Aristophanes – circa 400BC – through to last year’s ribald Seth Rogen animated comedy Sausage Party, the tradition of art questioning belief is fundamental to humanity’s ongoing spiritual evolution.
In his 2003 book A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire, theologian Douglas Wilson reminds us that “satire is a kind of preaching… Satire treats the foibles of sinners with a less than perfect tenderness”.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone, of South Park notoriety, have ribbed religion since their early animated short, 1992’s ‘Jesus versus Frosty’. The duo could certainly be accused of “less than perfect tenderness” when it comes to their wide-ranging satirical targets.
No cow is too sacred for these equal opportunity provocateurs – race, sexuality, popular culture and religion are all fair game, with everyone from bleeding hearts to conservative hard-liners squarely in their sights. The Book of Mormon – developed by Parker and Stone with Grammy-winning Avenue Q songwriter Robert Lopez – debuted on Broadway in 2011 to astonishing, ongoing success.
The story of two trainee Mormon missionaries – ambitious, benignly ruthless Elder Price (Canadian Ryan Bondy channelling Trump offspring Eric) and dorky, lonely Elder Cunningham (Broadway production transplant AJ Holmes) – Book of Mormon continues the South Park creators’ career-long obsession with profane parody, the overblown tropes of musical theatre and ever-present scatological provocation.
The Book of Mormon follows Elders Price and Cunningham’s unexpected two-year deployment to Uganda. Confronted with Third World realities – AIDS, ruthless warlords, female genital mutilation, extreme poverty – the duo of innocent Latter-Day Saints discover these issues are not easily resolved with homilies or rituals.
Drawing upon the extravagant staging, religious motifs and rock opera excesses of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat (1968) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), The Book of Mormon also expands upon themes explored in Monty Python’s notoriously banned Life of Brian (1978).
Melbourne’s Princess Theatre plays host to the debut Southern Hemisphere staging of The Book of Mormon. Showcasing an ensemble that is equal parts local and international, those familiar with the Broadway Cast Recording will be pleased to hear that all of the show’s rousing anthems, pin-drop balladry, fist-pumping reprises and riff-driven rock tunes are presented in exuberantly rude health… with emphasis on the rude.
Similarly, Book of Mormon’s choreography, production and sound design are mesmerising, at once lampooning more straight-laced musical theatre fare and simultaneously exalting in its traditions.
Without ruining The Book of Mormon’s many narrative and musical surprises, rest assured you’ll bear witness to:
- Takeaway coffee cups engaged in Busby Berkeley-style dance numbers amidst crimson hellscapes
- Pastel, Norman Rockwell inspired reenactments of Latter Day Saint founder Joseph Smith discovering the Golden Plates, the basis of Smith’s Book of Mormon, in New York (circa 1823)
- A raunchy, Disney-inspired showstopper that will leave you gasping (with laughter or outrage).
Admittedly, that’s barely scratching the surface of Parker and Stone’s latest subversive paean to the musical theatre form, another gleeful example of these naughty little boys’ scorched earth, defiantly politically incorrect stage and screen output.
As Douglas Wilson reminds us, “satire pervades Scripture”. The Book of Mormon, with a wicked gleam in its eye, challenges us to open ourselves to Parker and Stone’s parodic fable and its confronting reflections on the role of mainstream religion in an increasingly troubled world.
The Book of Mormon, Musical Comedy. Tickets available here. Princess Theatre, 163 Spring Street, Melbourne, VIC, 3000
Preview a track from the Original The Book of Mormon Broadway Cast Recording here.
Digital image by Garth Jones