Updated: Jul 23
Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, Matt Stone
Anne Garefino, Sonia Friedman Productions, Roger Berlind, Scott M Delman, Jean Doumanian, Roy Furman, Stephanie P McClelland, Kevin, Morris, Jon B Platt, Robert G Bertner, Norman Tulchin, Stuart Thompson
July 19-August 13, 2022; 2hrs 20mins
Where to start? With no synopsis in the programme or on the website, you go in all but blind. And perhaps that is for the best. The comedy certainly relies on it.
As the show starts, it is stunning, funny and clever. The opening number, Hello, is a televisual, cartoon-like march accompanied by doorbells, Mormons popping up in fugue to proclaim their good news and advertise their book and their church, cleverly set (for anyone who's interested) to the descending minor third of the doorbell.
It's very South Park, as we might expect from the creators. And it's not a new idea in musical theatre: Sondheim used the "doorbell motif" in the opening number of Company. But it's still a neat trick. One of the most visually and musically effective opening numbers in musical theatre? Maybe.
I offer this praise – a prime example of the construction, which is clever and polished throughout – perhaps to balance the criticism to come, which is about ethics rather than performance or production values. It's worth wondering what it really all means, and from whose perspective we are invited to gaze.
We get a choreographed, "approved dialogue"-scripted army going door to door to secure as many conversions and baptisms as possible ("Did you know that Jesus lived here in the USA?"). The entire show is framed by a virgin-white proscenium arch that replicates the Mormon architecture, with central herald angel and disco stained-glass. Perhaps this is an announcement that the audience is viewing the world through lampooned Mormon eyes. Stories are simple and pantomimed, blind faith prioritised over reason ("Mormons just believe"), and America always centred.
In a post-Trump world, it's easy to buy into the self-deprecation of the creators, in terms of being USA-centric and offering self-referential mockery of musical theatre. Naive, deluded but well-intentioned missionaries make uneducated assumptions about their African destination being like The Lion King. Musically and scenically this is executed with comic precision and flair. References to this and other shows are peppered throughout in what might be satire and homage at the same time. The Mormon story itself centres on Jesus appearing in America, and he is always portrayed as the comically-blond 19th Century portrait version, superimposed on the 21st century, with assumed irony. It's funny.
And yet the American-centrism and (let's call a spade a spade) outright racism once our missionaries arrive in Uganda, is not always ironic. We laugh kindly and gently at the deluded, but likeable, colonising Mormons and yet are invited to shriek at the stereotyped Ugandans, and the presentations of poverty, civil war, female genital mutilation and the aids crisis.
It raises the question of what's actually funny, what is ironic and where satire might work successfully, or not.
One missionary, Elder McKinley, leads the hilarious number Turn It Off about suppressing emotions, and more immediately his own sexuality. It's camp, and ends in a chorus of tap-dancing Mormons in pink sequins. It feels funny. Since the theatre has always been a haven for the LGBTQ+ community, members of which have in today's musical theatre finally attained some creative power, satire here seems apt and funny. The ensemble are playing themselves, and many of the audience are invited to laugh at themselves, albeit in a world of Mormons; tap dance used as a big, gay metaphor for delusion can be cutting and funny in this context.
Toxic masculinity is not left unchecked either. Elder Cunningham persuades himself, with audibly-enhanced sexuality, to "man up", to be like Jesus, as religion and sex become very confused in the baptism scene. Here his love interest, the newly-baptised Nabulungi, proclaims herself to be "wet with salvation". Shock factor maybe, but we can look back to the 19th century hymnal for that kind of conflation, here parodied and exaggerated to the extreme.
Similarly the white saviour complex is at times lampooned, with the missionaries shoving the Africans out of the way in I Am Africa, to comic effect. And yet in the end the Ugandans become missionaries. They develop their own child-like religious zeal for the colonising power. It's uncomfortable.
Some reviewers would have this as a risque but joyful evening of musical theatre, with "lefty snowflakes" taking what the Guardian's Euan Ferguson termed "recreational offence". But was it deluded of the producers, last December as the UK tour was in Manchester, to invite local HIV activists among their guests, resulting in fiercely unrestrained reaction?
After the death of George Floyd, black cast members wrote to the creative team, warning of the audience's new sensibilities and the perception that would be brought to the show. Revisions were made, with more power conceded to the Ugandan villagers. These concessions did not go far enough.
In a real-life extension of the funnier moments of the show, real, smiling, very young Mormon Sisters and Elders awaited us outside the theatre with calling cards. I asked them if they had seen the show and how they felt. They had seen only clips, but professed not to mind it, or recognised it as satire. And indeed, the Mormon characters are painted as naive but ultimately sympathetic.
Three stars for such a hugely-successful show? That's an average, but it depends who you are, where you come from, and certainly where you think society should be in the 21st century.
In all honesty, I'd far sooner watch it with a Mormon than a Ugandan.
Info and tickets here