Before Abercrombie and Fitch opened its noisy brash buff-model doors in London, everyone wanted its T-shirts: it was a “hot” brand and you could show off you’d been, or knew someone who’d been, to the States to get one. For two years now, news has been drifting across the Atlantic of how “hot” a ticket Book of Mormon has become, and that it was “audacious” and “hilarious”, but with limited actual detail.

Now that we’ve got it home and can examine it under the cold English light of day, possibly the cut and the colours aren’t quite so striking, and maybe it’s shrunk a bit too.

I bought the hype, and whilst I wouldn’t buy a $350 last-minute ticket in New York, I was eager to tip up £87, five months in advance, to see at close range what all the fuss was about. Even for someone who goes to the theatre a lot, this was an exciting evening and I expected to be blown away.

The whole experience is quite Americanised: a new earpiece-fitted security team has been hired for the production and the way they make even ticket holders queue down the side of the theatre in the pouring rain and shout at you has the authentic ring of West 49th Street about it.

And we’re off: it starts well with a punchy and vigorously choreographed number where the trainee Mormon evangelists, all male, all bright, all squeaky clean, learn the strict introductory patter for the doorstep. Maybe they’re not all as sharply barbered and dentally perfect as Gavin Creel, but he’s the lead and has been imported from the road company of the US tour whereas others were recruited, for Equity minimum wage, locally.

Creel is very good as the ambitious 19-year old Elder Price, lean, keen and bursting with crusading ambition but saddled with a dorky ham-fisted but “lovable” loser Elder Cunningham, played quite broadly by Jared Gertner, also plucked from the road company in Los Angeles and sent to London to spread the word. In the plot parallel, the mismatched pair are despatched to Uganda where Price squares up to local heathens and terrorists whilst Cunningham feeds them fairy stories to win their friendship.

They prefer the sugar-coated stories and, in a ripe parody of “Small House of Uncle Thomas” from The King and I, act out Cunningham’s version of the passion play to the horror of visiting Mormon supervisors. In a predictably happy ending, Cunningham’s philosophy of friendship and blissful ignorance is adopted as a religion in its own right and the boys bond as friends.

Scripted by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park and abetted by music from Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez, the show is irreverently and enthusiastically filthy. However, none of the songs struck me as quite as subversive as, say “Chocolate Salty Balls” from South Park itself, and there’s a point where you begin to think “oh, they couldn’t squeeze another internal rhyme in here so they just used “c**t” again”. Criticisms of the concept have included suggestions of racism: the Ugandans are portrayed mainly as ignorant, thieving, AIDS-ridden, female circumcisers and despite the fact that the black ensemble in the show is tremendously good – and their spoof of The Lion King “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (F**k You, God) is the absolute highlight of the show – it does come over as a bit patronising.

Trouble is, two years after opening this already feels like a franchise rather than something box-fresh and edgy. Neither the plot structure nor the book has any of the daring originality of Jerry Springer The Opera, which at least had the religious right picketing theatres. For a country which doesn’t take kindly to anyone knocking Jesus, America has been surprisingly docile on this point – possibly partly explained by the fact that the Mormon church has three full-page advertisements in the show’s programme. Jokingly copywritten with “you’ve seen the show, now read the Book” there’s an unhealthy symbiosis between the organisation being satirised and the satirists. It’s like the Nazi party taking ad space in the playbill for The Producers.

There’s another example: Mormon isn’t as witty as The Producers, and its parodic production numbers aren’t half as clever. Although Mormon is designed for the Hairspray and Priscillageneration, cardboard scenery and dodgy wigs give the show a pantomime quality which falls short of Priscilla’s glorious staging and dazzling costumes.

It’s all too calculated: the satire is limited to what will startle but not ultimately offend, the songs cling closely to traditional musical theatre and break no new ground; in fact, it’s a surprisingly conventional show both in its format and moral outcome for the characters. It’s brilliantly marketed, though: positioned for those who want the hottest ticket in town rather than the best show, and with a high proportion of premium seats. They’ve also “invented” premium ice cream: £3 for a regular, £4 for one with a melting chocolate centre. I learned recently that ice cream is sold by volume rather than weight because it incorporates so much air and that, for example a 100ml theatre tub contains only 50 grams of ingredients. A triumph of froth over substance, then, a bit like The Book of Mormon.

Ah well, the Second Coming’s never as good as the first.

Date reviewed: Thursday 21st March 2013
Image © Johan Persson

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.