When I lived in Kingston Ontario, one of my associates developed a theory that he called the Chez Piggy effect. Chez Piggy was one of the best restaurants in town, (and by all accounts it still is!) The food was creative and delicious, the service usually impeccable, and the atmosphere casual enough that people who didn’t go to “fancy restaurants” often would be able to feel comfortable. But my associate had the theory that Chez Piggy didn’t completely deserve its fabulous reputation – he said that since so many of the people who went there were going to mark an occasion (anniversary, graduation, etc), they were unlikely to express any criticism of the actual food or service because they were inclined to make good memories and not “ruin the occasion” by voicing any displeasure to their server at the time or to each other afterwards.
I didn’t actually agree with him about Chez Piggy, since I had never had poor food or poor service there, but I saw his point in general. When I go to a lot of trouble and expense to attend something, I probably am less inclined to pay attention to its flaws.
With all of that as a circuitous disclaimer, I want to say that my first impressions of the Toronto/Mirvish production of the musical Book of Mormon were entirely positive. I saw it on Saturday – actually I saw two performances back-to-back and I loved it more the second time through.
Book of Mormon is a story about two Mormon missionaries arriving in Uganda, and how the interaction changes both the missionaries and the Ugandans. It’s also about faith versus works (and comes down hard on the Pope Francis side that being a good person matters more than believing all the right things). It’s about North American / Global North views of Africa as the homogeneous themepark of Lion King. It’s about boys trying to please their fathers, and families trying to cope in horrible situations, and metaphors versus miracles.
I am quite familiar with the soundtrack, but knew almost nothing about how the story progressed between the songs and bits of conversation on the original-cast album, and nothing at all about what I would see on stage. So I had a general sense of plot and pacing, but there were several key points which did not become clear until I was watching the actual show. Unlike many musical productions, the program for this one did not list the songs.
Being familiar with the lyrics meant that I wasn’t always laughing at things the rest of the audience laughed at. Some of them laughed at swearing just because it was swearing, every time. There’s quite a bit of swearing in the show, and we hear it as shocking because the young missionaries are shocked by it. The alternatives-to-swearing employed by the missionaries (“Oh-Em-Gosh”, for example) sounded credible to me and were generally not played for laughs.
I was completely delighted by the dancing. The big production number to “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” said some original things about Hell and was creepy and funny without being ridiculous. A historical pageant included acting out the effects of dysentery on Joseph Smith and his fellow migrants, which was just barely not too graphic for my comfort and thus hilarious. And I loved the elder-missionaries chorus showing their flashier sides in “Man Up” and “Turn It Off!” I am a big fan of ironic choreography that uses all the familiar gestures of 20th century stage shows in parodic ways, and Book of Mormon had lots of them – jazz hands, top hats, tap dancing, exaggerated marching, pelvic thrusts, and other bits that I don’t have the words for but have been seeing since I was a small child watching song-and-dance shows on television.
In the Saturday shows, the role of Elder Cunningham (the bumbling fanboy missionary) was played by standby Michael Buchanan rather than the usual actor Christopher John O’Neill. The other headliners Mark Evans (Elder Price, the cocky missionary with the rockstar reputation who chokes) and Samantha Marie Ware (Nabulungi, Ugandan convert and love-interest) were performing in their usual roles. On first viewing, I didn’t really distinguish among the Ugandan people in the story except for Nabulungi and her father (I’m not sure if he was some kind of village authority; he was the person the missionaries had been told to report to.) Seeing it again, I saw the doctor, the man called Motumbo (whose identifying motivation is disturbing enough that I won’t repeat it here out of context), and the teacher, as well as the warlord called the General and his supporters – but except for Nabulungi the villagers are not well characterised. Neither are the other missionaries, except for Elder McKinley (Grey Henson).
I felt uncomfortable about a few of the ways that Nabulungi, the female lead, was diminished into comedy. There’s a running gag about Elder Cunningham, for all his crush on her, being unable to remember her name and substituting all kinds of inappropriate long words – Nala (like in Lion King), Neosporin, Jon Bon Jovi, Nanaimo Bar, and so on. (I’m almost positive that he didn’t say Nanaimo Bar in the afternoon show just in the evening one, so the actor may have been riffing somewhat spontaneously in the late shows of the run). She buys a typewriter which she calls a “texting device”, and then the plot advances through her writing notes to people which she refers to as texting. This made me feel like it was making fun of a developing-world young woman’s wish to be modern and her misunderstanding of technology and terminology. Near the end, there’s a miscommunication plot point about her having assumed that accepting baptism would lead to her getting to emigrate to Salt Lake City with the missionaries (Sal Tlay Ka Siti, as the title of her solo is spelled). I started to be annoyed at this being another shortcut joke making fun of the naïve village girl, but some of my discomfort was redeemed for me in the way all the other villagers immediately began explaining to her that they’d always known that the religious stories were all metaphors, and had accepted the religion knowing that. This was also a tidy way of reconciling the canonical Mormon stories with Elder Cunningham’s creative and useful extemporaneous versions, saying that the details really don’t matter very much.
The sound balance was just about perfect, from where I was sitting. There was a small live orchestra which never overpowered the singers. The lighting was effective and usually unobtrusive. The scenery was fun to look at but not overly complicated or distracting. A few things were moved by the actors (turning a door as they walked around it to indicate changing from an outdoor to indoor scene) but mostly things moved invisibly. For the scene when the new missionaries arrive in Uganda totally overwhelmed, the visuals bring this out very well, with lots of crowded buildings, and rocks making a busy cluttered setting while the villagers go about their daily chores all over the stage, including one character dragging a dead donkey behind him, its head bobbing bloodily.
The story and the characters worked very well for me, partly because over the course of the story everyone changes, some of them quite against their will but all in a way that I saw as positive. I wondered ahead of time if I would find it difficult to accept the premise of the story without needing to ignore inconsistency with my own beliefs. In fact I was pleasantly surprised that after a lot of pointed criticism of that specific implementation of religion and evangelism earlier in the play, the general resolution was approximately humanist in a way that I didn’t find troubling or dramatically inconsistent.
Book of Mormon closed in Toronto after last weekend, but the tour continues. I would definitely see it again if an opportunity I could afford arose. Or possibly one that I couldn’t, after I finish paying for this trip.
I’m glad (sort of) to hear that similar discomfort with some of the portrayal of Nabulungi (and the other villagers). I, um, also saw cell phones all over Uganda, including in towns with little/no electricity.
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