‘Mormon’ Lacks Bite as Missionaries Go Mad in London

The musical juggernaut that is “The Book of Mormon” rolls into London squashing everything in its path. It trails awards from New York, is already sold out until June, and is seemingly critic-proof.

So it shouldn’t mind a few pops from me as it lumbers past.

The show is by “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone with help from Robert Lopez, and tells the story of two perky, ill-matched missionaries (Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner) who are sent to convert Ugandans to Mormonism.

Satire, of the super-sized variety, is the name of the game.

In the story, Americans are naively arrogant fools, happily ignorant about Africa. Mormons are more credulous than the most pop-eyed of conspiracy theorists, and all speak in the manner of perky five-year-olds. Africans are helpless, technologically backward halfwits.

Musicals themselves are parodied for their emotional banality, with plenty of obvious potshots at “The Lion King,” “The King and I,” “The Sound of Music” and “Annie.”

The musical style pastiches Broadway’s golden era, with Africans singing an upbeat chorus about AIDS, poverty, misogyny, and forced female genital mutilation.

Phew, that’s a lot of satire: religion, colonialism, racism, musicals, and superstition. It’s known as a scatter-gun approach. Only here the gentle bullets float past and land with little dusty plops somewhere out of sight.

Unfocused Satire

That’s because the satire is as affectionate as it is unfocused. We’re supposed to root for the cheerful Mormons and nice Africans, and that leaves something of a problem in the presentation of the main antagonist, a savage local warlord with an unprintable name.

This beefy gold-toothed fellow (Chris Jarman) has paranoia about the women of the village.

Heaven forfend that he should actually generate some proper conflict. No, that would disturb all the affectionate satire. So the writers simply give him nothing to do. He has no individual numbers, no dance routines, and is a mere comic stooge in his one main scene. Unsurprisingly, he’s conquered without much ado at the end.

All that potential drama is thrown out of the window. Imagine Tom without Jerry, and you get the idea. What were they thinking?

It’s not all gloom. The performances have the required exaggeration of gesture, and the two principal missionaries do their little-child shtick (“Now I have a best friend!”) with suitable silliness.

Nowhere Attraction

The nebbish Cunningham (Gertner) is forever hugging and adoring the clever good-looking Price (Creel). This attraction ultimately goes nowhere. Why even suggest it, I wonder?

It confuses a thin romantic subplot between Cunningham (Gertner) and an African girl called Nabalungi (Alexia Khadime), even though it generates the most amusing number “Baptize Me,” in which they describe a baptism in increasingly erotic terms.

Casey Nicholaw’s slick choreography is top-notch, and the kick-lines and Bob Fosse moves look great. Scott Pask’s old-fashioned set has simple descending flats for scene changes and large trucks of scenery for the African village: Though hardly innovative, it does the job.

If you fancy a really sharp-clawed musical satire about religion, get the DVD of “Jerry Springer: The Opera.” Satan himself is the principal villain, nappy-wearing Jesus gets into fisticuffs with him, and Jerry is required to reconcile the eternal split between good and evil.

Now that’s what I call conflict. And nobody could mistake the satire as -- deadly term -- “affectionate.”

Rating: **½.

“The Book of Mormon” is at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Coventry St, London W1D 6AS. Tickets are available from June onwards, or call the box office for returns. Information: http://www.bookofmormonlondon.com or +44-844-482-5110 or http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Excellent
****       Very good
***        Average
**         Mediocre
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on New York theater, New York weekend guide and Lewis Lapham on history.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.