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Photo by Joan Marcus.

Theatre review: Book of Mormon at Southam Hall

By Jared Davidson on April 29, 2017

If you’re a long-time fan of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, if were raised on Baseketball, South Park and Team America, The Book of Mormon is for you. Parker and Stone have been producing their trademarked brand of ironic pseudo-satire for over two decades to public and critical acclaim, and have built an empire on making light of pretty much everything and everyone, from Tom Cruise to electric car owners.

The Book of Mormon continues that tradition by deconstructing the facets of Mormonism, and it does so with a level of polish that has become typical of Parker and Stone. And while it is a well-produced show that will appeal to fans of the comedy duo, there are some that may be turned off by its tone, especially in the way it presents Africa and Africans.

The show is a Broadway musical that centres on a group of Mormon boys, headed by Elder Price (Gabe Gibbs) and Elder Cunningham (Conner Peirson), who are tasked with bringing the Mormon faith to a village in Uganda. They don’t have an easy time of it: their promise of spiritual salvation proves ineffective against the very-much-physical problems present in the village (dictatorship, disease, illiteracy, etc.).

This leads to some pretty predictable, yet enjoyable, comedy as the boys grapple with helping the village. Gibbs and Peirson’s performances are excellent, and their transformation as characters is compelling to watch. Peirson’s physical comedy is borderline ballet; he does a great job of making the character believable, relatable and ridiculous. He is both the butt and the winner of the joke.

And that’s where Parker and Stone’s comedy finds its sweet spot, in the tone of lovingly making fun. However, at times their would-be satire becomes problematic, and its attempts at ironic subversion come off as bumbling misunderstanding or just straight up racism.

True, the depiction of the African village here is meant as parody. But it occasionally crosses lines into places where the only joke is that Africans are primitive, or unintelligent, or are in need of saving by white men. For example, the doctor of the village doesn’t seem to have done much study and is mostly there to deliver his catchphrase: “I have maggots in my scrotum.”

The audience is being asked to make the stretch that Parker and Stone mean this depiction of Africans as a parody of how Mormons (or the West generally) view Africa. But this doesn’t always work, and the play sometimes risks alienating portions of its audience with questions of who exactly they should be laughing at.

For its flaws, The Book of Mormon is stunning. The music is great, with exceptional vocal performances from all the actors, with the special highlight of Leanne Robinson, whose voice is far to incredible to be given so few singing parts. And, again, while the show may not work for some people, others may be able to overlook some aspects of it.

The Book of Mormon is showing at the National Arts Centre at 2pm and 8pm on Saturday April 29 and Sunday at 1pm and 7:30pm. Tickets start at $54.