The Book of Mormon deserves the hype

The Book of Mormon. Photo by Joan Marcus
The Book of Mormon. Photo by Joan Marcus

It’s not often that a musical gets hyped up quite the way The Book of Mormon has been – so it’s no small feat that the touring production has fully lived up to its reputation.

Winner of the 2011 Tony Award for Best Musical, the show is only in Vancouver for a week, and it’s easy to see why this outrageous and sharp satire is so popular. It’s written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, with Robert Lopez (known for Avenue Q and Frozen) – but you don’t need to be a South Park fan to connect with this show’s humour.

The musical centres on a young Mormon named Elder Cunningham, who’s the awkward misfit of his Missionary Training Centre. As the fresh-faced missionaries set off two by two across the globe, he gets paired with Elder Price, the golden boy of the group. As the other missionaries are excited to be sent to places like France and Norway, Cunningham and Price are shocked to find they’ll be spending the next two years in northern Uganda.

Most of the play is set in Uganda, depicted as a caricature of an impoverished African country rife with militias and AIDS. The writers are at the top of their game with the heavy satire throughout the storyline. The show can certainly be enjoyed just as an excellent comedy with an engaging plot, but it’s all the more interesting for what it has to say. It’s not just making fun of Mormons, as it comments more broadly on religious belief and doctrine, in addition to aid work and colonialism. The show has a no-holds-barred approach to satire, and no topic is taboo. And to be clear: the warnings of explicit language really are serious.

A major highlight of this production is A. J. Holmes in the lead role of Cunningham. He’s hilarious in every scene, and avoids ever becoming annoying with his endearingly innocent smile that makes it impossible not to cheer for him. The young actor also has a strikingly strong and versatile voice that should help make him one to watch for years to come.

Billy Harrigan Tighe, co-starring as Elder Price, plays the straight man to Cunningham, and he nails the idealistic anthem “I Believe.” Brian Beach is delightful as the district leader in Uganda, and makes his ode to repression, “Turn if Off,” possibly the best number of the night. Alexandra Ncube is charming as Nabulungi, one of the villagers learning about the Mormon church, and she has excellent chemistry with Holmes in the very funny “Baptize Me.”

Many of the songs are reminiscent of Broadway’s biggest hits as the music plays off tropes of the genre. That does mean the songs aren’t the most original or musically impactful, but the lyrics are very clever and memorable, and some songs such as “I Am Africa” are brilliant satire.

Every element of the production is impressive, from the choreography performed by a talented ensemble to the costumes, set design and all. It can certainly be risky getting your hopes up about a smash hit coming to town, but there really is nothing quite like this show.

The Book of Mormon is at Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre until April 12 before it continues its North American tour. For those who haven’t bought tickets, there’s a lottery every night releasing a limited number of tickets for $25 (cash only). Starting two and a half hours before the curtain, names will be taken at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza for half an hour – only one entry per person – before a random draw for the tickets.