Someone described as a “leading media liberal” was reportedly overheard in the foyer asking “why has nobody called this show racist?”. I wish someone had replied, “why has nobody called you stupid?”. This long-anticipated Broadway musical may offend in many ways, but being racist isn’t one of them.
In fact, this hit by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of TV’s South Park, has generated few complaints. There have been no Jerry Springer, The Opera-style picket lines protesting against blasphemous depictions of Jesus, or against Stone’s and Parker’s jokes about female circumcision.
Indeed, far from feeling targeted, the Mormons themselves have joined the party by taking out advertisements in the theatre programme.
It is Mormon scripture that comes in for most ridicule; specifically the notion that Jesus travelled to the New World and gave the “ancient Americans” (of 1830) part of the Bible on which their faith is founded. Oh, and the Garden of Eden was apparently in Jackson County, Missouri. These beliefs are hilariously lampooned through the kitschest possible tableaux.
The story involves two missionaries — the dashing Elder Price (Gavin Creel) and the nebbish Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner) — being sent to preach in Uganda. It is not quite the Florida parish that Elder Price was hoping for.
In portraying Africa, Stone and Parker, who co-directs with Casey Nicholaw, have gone for the opposite of the noble continent depicted in The Lion King. This place is ravaged by aids, poverty and a local warlord. American assumptions about the continent are brilliantly undermined — is all deeply ironic and extremely funny.
Mormon antipathy to homosexuality is nailed in the jaunty song Turn It Off, a phrase which describes the mental tool by which Mormons suppress unwanted passions. It is here that Nicholaw’s choreography accommodates the funniest sight gag on the London stage.
The book by Parker and Stone, who collaborate with composer Robert Lopez in the pastiche/parody of a score, deliciously subverts chorus-line conventions with some superbly staged set pieces.
Of the cracking performances, Gertner as the show’s shortest, fattest and, let’s face it, most Jewish Mormon, steals the show. It is he who focuses the satire on to its real target — organised religion.
But all this is nowhere near as close to the knuckle as the show’s reputation suggests. Monty Python’s Life of Brian was doing it decades ago. If, instead of Africa, these Mormons had gone to say an Islamic country, or the West Bank to convert Jewish settlers, then maybe this hugely fun show might actually have been dangerous.