Three years ago today I sat down to write a review of Opera Australia’s The King and I. The achingly beautiful production, starring ‘Australia’s Sweetheart’ Lisa McCune and ‘Barihunk’ Teddy Tahu-Rhodes, was the centrepiece of the 2014 Winter Season, an exquisitely detailed, sumptuously costumed reconstruction of the 1991 Broadway production, itself an homage to the 1956 movie – you know, the one with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. In fact, if you’ve seen the movie, you’re halfway there. Just update it to Sydney Opera House, 2014, with stunning live performances by, um, Australians dressed up as Siamese. Doing a 1991 show. Inspired by a 1956 movie. Set in nineteenth-century Colonial Siam. Yup. You see the problem? It was practically historically-informed performance.
Fast forward three years and I’m at The Book of Mormon, a curiously comparable musical which tells the tale of a nineteenth-century fellow “named Joe, living in the holy land of Rochester, New York…” Yes, they’re talking about Joseph Smith, American religious leader and founder of the Church of the Latter-day Saints, aka Mormonism. We get to hear his version of history, including re-enactments of battles between Hebrew tribes who look like they’ve got lost on the way to the set of the 1959 film of Ben Hur. Unlike The King and I, however, we also get to meet some thoroughly contemporary characters, including an eager team of Mormon elders on an evangelical mission to darkest Uganda, and the AIDS-ravaged inhabitants who live in fear of the local warlord. The clash between the wide-eyed Disney “Hello” of the would-be missionaries and the lusty “Hasa Diga Eebowai”* of the Ugandan villagers sets up a series of delicious dichotomies which fuel the entire show.
I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow: you can read about the show here and here and here. I loved the simplicity of the idea behind the opening number – the ring of a doorbell – and the all-out over-the-topness of the hell scene. “Turn it Off” is simultaneously hilarious and tragic, and the climactic show-within-a-show, where the Ugandans put on a performance for the visiting Mormon executive, is so wrong it’s right. (Don’t fuck the baby, Joseph!**) Although Elder Price and Elder Cunningham frequently steal the show with their power songs, it’s an ensemble piece, the many doublings and quick changes fooling you into thinking it’s a much larger cast. Likewise, the staging is endlessly inventive, making much of little. No gasp-inducing special effects or high-tech set pieces here. Ultimately, the whole thing revels in the power of make-believe. Whether you classify religion, or dreaming or, for that matter, theatre as make-believe is for you to take home and think about.
RYAN BONDY, ZAHRA NEWMAN, A.J. HOLMES AND COMPANY (Photo: Jeff Busby)
The Book of Mormon is a show which not only hijacks and pays homage to the musical genre, but also takes it into new territories. Unlike the so-right-it’s-wrong glitter of The King and I, Mormon addresses the past but also asks the difficult questions which, in the twenty-first century, a thinking audience has to ask. It’s not achingly beautiful, or exquisitely-detailed or sumptuously-costumed (although the painted backdrops look like they’re filched from 1950s Hollywood and the outfits in Creepy Mormon Hell are dazzling.) What it is is exuberant and iconoclastic and humane and touching and depressing and inspiring and screamingly funny, often all at the same time.
In other words, it’s all the things I go to the theatre for: to laugh and cry, feel and think. It’s… It’s a metaphor.***
*Google it. This is a family blog.
***You have to see it.