The world's most "inappropriate" and "rude" musical is about to open in Auckland, but really The Book of Mormon is a masterclass in satire with heart
Inappropriate! Shocking! Rude!
And that's just what the billboards urging us to go and see The Book of Mormon say.
Then there are the reports that some folk have been so offended by what they witness on stage – including jokes about Aids, female genital multilation, rape and cannibalism – that they've hurrumphed out of the theatre midway through musical numbers like the innuendo-charged Turn It Off, Baptize Me or Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.
Compared to that, warnings that the show contains explicit language (it does – and it runs the gamut of the dictionary) seem tame.
Even some of the cast who are bringing the show to Auckland admit to wondering what the devil they'd signed up for. Lewis Francis, from Whangaparaoa and a former member of the NZ Opera chorus, was in Melbourne when he first went and saw it.
"I was like, 'Oh my goodness! What have I got myself in for? Am I really about to do this show?'"
Francis' next thought was about how his mum would react when she saw him, for example, running round with a giant phallus re-enacting parts of a text sacred to 16 million Mormons around the world? She's not Mormon but she goes to church.
"She's seen it five times now and likes to sit in the front row, where I can see her laughing even at some things I really didn't think she would like," he says.
• Believe it, The Book of Mormon is coming to Auckland
• 'Best musical this century': Award winning show The Book of Mormon coming to NZ
• The Book Of Mormon set to make Australian debut
• Premium - The Book of Mormon: South Park subversives hit global stage
But really, Francis' reservations had little to do with the show's content and more about the overwhelming energy required to survive eight performances a week of an all-singing, all-dancing, high-impact stage blockbuster.
Because The Book of Mormon is a musical with nine Tony Awards, Four Olivier Awards and a Grammy (among others) plus ticket sales of some 17 million across three continents and some rave reviews.
Even the Mormon community hasn't taken open umbrage, cleverly beating the musical's makers at their own game by advertising in programmes rather than protesting outside theatres. A season in Salt Lake City, Utah – home of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints – was extended.
You don't end up with a trophy cabinet full of awards and scrapbooks of glowing reviews simply by being rude and crude. The show's creators – and this is what you need to remember when you book tickets – are Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the satirists who shocked the world back in 97 when the cartoon series South Park burst on to the screen to disquiet Middle America. Twenty-two years later, the series is still going.
Along with their trademark slapstick, scatological humour, visual gags and social satire, they've stuffed The Book of Mormon with all the elements – a big-hearted story, captivating but relatable characters, catchy songs and eye-popping sets and costumes - that win fans, awards and longevity in the world's toughest theatre markets.
When I saw it at Brisbane's Lyric Theatre, no one walked out. Instead they laughed (and laughed, then laughed some more), applauded until their hands must have ached and engaged the cast after the show in awed conversation as they emptied loose change into buckets wielded by exhilarated - but surely exhausted - actors to raise money for Australian bush fire relief. A few filed out of the theatre humming Turn It Off (it really is catchy – and apt).
Aucklander Joel Granger, who last performed in New Zealand in the opera Sweeney Todd, stars as Elder McKinley, a clean-cut, closeted young Mormon all at sea on a mission in Uganda. Granger, who reckons he'd seen The Book of Mormon five-or-so times before he was cast, says he feels he can invite anyone and they'll love it.
"A lot of people who don't usually like musicals, especially blokey men, come and they absolutely love it," says Granger. "It's nice to be in something that I can invite anyone to rather than feeling that I am dragging them along to 2.5 hours of singing and dancing.
"It's such a joyful piece and it's so infectious and the performances are such high-energy. Then apart from that, it's just very smart, clever writing. I was also one of the theatre nerds who knew the soundtrack very well so I kind of knew a lot of the jokes and the songs but I think, seeing it on stage, it is such a visual show. I think people think it's just a bunch of boys running around in white shirts but there are a lot of special effects and things to see."
It's also a classic buddy story – a point made by the show's charismatic leads, Australian Blake Bowden and Canadian Nyk Bielak. They've notched up more than 1000 performances together since the show opened in Melbourne in 2017 (before that Bielak toured with the show in the United States) and have been working together so long that they finish each other's sentences.
Bowden plays the strait-laced and squeaky clean Elder Price; Bielak is the more shambolic Elder Cunningham. They're an archetypal odd couple, with Price desperate to go to Uganda and save souls while Cunningham just wants to make a friend and be accepted for who he is.
In Uganda, they're suddenly confronted by real-world problems that force them to face their own flaws, foibles and faith. Coming to terms with all that is at the – very big – heart of the show.
It's a standard musical theatre trope, says Bowden. "You know, two people go on a journey of self-discovery – an actual journey – and they face a bunch of problems along the way…"
"Like helping a community come together," chimes in Bielak.
"That's right," says Bowden, "and they discover things about themselves that they never realised and it kind of comes full circle and ends in a big happy dance number with everyone. That's the classical musical structure.
"There is a lot of swearing but I always say that the guys [Parker and Stone] are so clever that they condense it and put a lot of swearing in one or two key moments and pack it full of it so it's not the entire show. We're not cussing the whole time…"
"But," offers Bielak, "it feels shocking to hear it in a theatre because we don't usually hear that type of language there. But in the actual writing, it feels like everything is there to prove a point about something. It's vulgar to just be vulgar but Matt and Trey are cleverer than that. They don't do things loosely. They are master satirists and they know what they're doing, so if anyone was going to write a musical tackling Mormonism and religion without being malicious or in bad faith, then it's them."
His advice to anyone going along? Don't take it too seriously, go with an open mind and heart and be ready to be surprised, moved, delighted, made to laugh and thoroughly entertained.
"There's a reason why it's so successful and we see that every night from the people looking back at us."
Who: The stars of award-guzzling global musical smash The Book of Mormon
When: The Civic Theatre, Auckland
Where: Tomorrow (March 6) to April 19.
The Book of Mormon is at the Civic Theatre, from tomorrow to April 19