The Book Of Mormon – Theatre Review

The Book of Mormon

Last July I got a text saying that tickets for the London production of The Book Of Mormon had finally gone on sale that morning. I immediately began refreshing the server-crashed website that was selling tickets and 45 minutes later received many an odd look from my colleagues when I began whooping with joy after emerging victor with tickets to a show just days after previews were to begin on February 25th 2013.

Why should someone who has almost no interest in musical theatre be interested in The Book Of Mormon? Well, because it is the child of Robert Lopez, the co-writer/co-composer of puppet musical Avenue Q and Trey Parker & Matt Stone, the men responsible for South Park, Orgazmo and Team America.

Parker and Stone, no strangers to musical styling, subversive comedy, and religious satire have been brewing The Book Of Mormon for literally over twenty years. After their first feature, Cannibal: The Musical, Parker and Stone planned on a Joseph Smith musical that never came to fruition. And now (well, between 2003-2011), with the help of Lopez, Parker and Stone’s first foray into live theatre is here, and is an extraordinary one.

And lo, the Lord said that a musical that brews for twenty years will age into possibly the most unorthodox yet completely conventional musical ever. And totally kick ass.

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Elder Price (Gavin Creel) is a devout but borderline-narcissistic Mormon missionary-to-be. His dream assignment would take him to Orlando, Florida (“the most wonderful place on Earth”) where he can fulfil his self-prophesised destiny to be the most successful missionary in history. To his dismay Price is paired with Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner), an insecure nerd and compulsive liar who is arguably the worst missionary around. Further to Price’s disappointment, he and Cunningham’s two-year assignment turns out to be in a hostile village in Uganda. Therein the pair’s faith is tested as they attempt to convert the dispassionate people of the village to Mormonism and protect them from the ruthless General Butt-F**cking Naked (Chris Jarman).

No longer at the mercy of censors much of the show’s humour is (somewhat expectedly) relentlessly ‘risqué’ and stems directly from poking fun at the alleged naivety of the Mormon religion and AIDs in Africa but there are just as many laughs that come entirely out of nowhere to tickle you silly too – a pimp Darth Vader dancing with 6-foot tall Starbucks cup being one of my personal favourites.

That said, the Monty Python-esque satire employed throughout is just the tip of the musical’s proverbial iceberg. When you take away the one-liners and a recurring joke about making love to a frog you see the show is laced with homages to musical theatre and film alike, with one of the most stand-out nods being a King and I­-like show-within-a-show about the ill-perceived origins of the Mormon religion.

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The production values are impressive and execution feels effortless, which is quite a feat considering the amount happening on the stage throughout the two-hour forty run-time. Aside from the ingenious songs themselves (The Book Of Mormon didn’t win 9 Tony Awards for nothing) the most standout aspect of the show is the confident performances from the cast. Creel and Gertner hit all the right notes emotionally and musically, and the supporting cast, which includes Alexia Khadime, Giles Terera and Stephen Ashfield, are all phenomenally funny and subtly tender even with their briefer stage time.

To say that the musical is even close to tasteful on the outside would be quite inaccurate but Parker and Stone’s trademark themes of morality and righteousness easily balance out The Book of Mormon’s more obscene efforts. Sure the portrayal of Mormons and their more unorthodox beliefs is a little bent and the sort-of-sequels to Team America’s “AIDs” are a tad aggressive but the classic South Park ‘I learned something today…’ moments that appear throughout the show remind us that the story being told, like the stories in the actual Book of Mormon, authentic or not, can be very real in our hearts – we just have to look past all the frog sex first.

Old Spice vs. New Spice

The Spice Girls

Finally a definitive answer to THE question of 2013:

Which is better, Spiceworld The Movie, or Viva Forever, the new musical inspired by the band’s songs?

Spiceworld The Movie

A film following five girls you may have heard of. It features several what-were-they-thinking celebrity cameos, a Union Jack painted bus and a pre-nose-job Victoria Beckham.

Best Dramatic Moment
If you like camp, implausible drama you’ll be spoilt for choice, but the finale which features a high-speed bus drive across London Bridge is good fun. A mention at this point should go to some of the best celebrity cameos, including Meatloaf as their driver, Richard E Grant as their manager, Roger Moore as head honcho, an evil Richard O’Brian and Elton John as, well, himself – it’s hard for anyone with such jazzy glasses to go incognito. My favourite celeb moment is probably Elvis Costello as a low-key barman, lamenting ‘fame is such a fickle thing’. This is much funnier now that I’m not 11, and know who he is.

Worst Dramatic Moment
They’re all ludicrous, but I suppose if you wanted to be fussy you could say the alien encounter was a bit much. Killjoy.

Best Song
Spice Up Your Life, seen in all its glory in front of a roaring crowd, which brings back memories of the enthusiasm and energy the band used to create. Sniff.

Worst Song
Wannabe, which is featured in a naff flash-back scene. Obviously none of the film is exactly anchored in the truth, but somehow lying about how they met (as friends, in a local diner, as opposed to put together from an advert in The Stage) brought out my inner-cynic. Plus they wear some pretty dodgy denim.

Best Joke
Victoria is a revelation. Her acting begins shakily self-conscious, but as the film progresses she comes to embrace her monotone delivery, and what my boyfriend calls ‘her Lynchian quality’, as assets. By far the funniest moment involves her shouting at a coma-victim.

Best Costume
There are a couple of excellent costume montages, which as an adolescent girl I was mesmerised by. One of the best involves the girls dressing up (and taking the mickey) as each other, with Victoria doing a rather good Emma (‘My mummy’s my best friend’) and Mel B letting off some steam as Geri (‘Urmm Girl Power, blahblahblah.’)

Campest Moment
Hands down their rendition of Gary Glitter’s My Gang, complete with male dancers in purple onesies with bumless-backs to them. Special times.

Total Number of Songs
A surprisingly paltry seven, but I haven’t included background tunes.

Spice Points
Well, it has to have five really, does it? It’s camp, tongue in cheek and very British – you can’t help but fall for it. 5/5 jars of cumin.

Viva Forever

A musical using the songs of the Spice Girls to tell the story of Viva – a young singer who starts out as part of a girl band on a reality show, but is quickly forced to choose between her friends or solo success.

Best Dramatic Moment
One of the best parts of the show was the way the songs (mostly about getting a bit of ‘zaggazigah’ with blokes) were re-imagined, particularly Say You’ll Be There (probably my fave Spicy song anyway) which was used to convey an argument between Viva and her former band mates about loyalty.

Worst Dramatic Moment
The low point was a complicated scene which seemed to have been added to build on the ‘story arc’. (Alarmingly Jennifer Saunders talked about the difficulties of building an emotional arc in the intro of the programme, and I’m not entirely sure the problem was ever resolved). It involved ‘aged’ (ie about 40) judge Simone trying to reveal Viva’s birth mother to her on camera in Spain, while her adopted mother burst in to support her; the stage assistant leapt around unhelpfully; Viva herself seemed fairly uninterested in the whole thing and her gormless Latino lover hung around at the back. Got that? No, me neither.

Best Song
Definitely a clever medley of Mama and Goodbye. It was performed as a mother/daughter duet, with simple staging and lighting allowing the lead to show off an impressive set of pipes. I got musical theatre goose bumps, not experienced since the girl with the green face reached the key change in Wicked.

Worst Song
There were a few to be honest, most of which involved Simone, who seemed to be given most of the big numbers. I’m not quite sure why. Probably the worst was Mel C’s I Turn To You, which I’ve never been a fan of anyway, and was delivered melodramatically and without moving the narrative along.

Best Joke
Again delivered through song, a scene involving awkward 50+ sex (think neon hotel sign and floral twin beds) between Viva’s mum and her friend/bedfellow Mitch, set to 2 Become 1. The audience caught the actors off-guard by adding in the ‘wanna make love to ya, baby’ refrains, which made them giggle all the more. I also liked the description of Pontins as a ‘celebrity spitoon’, which had Absolutely Fabulous written all over it.

Best Costume
A Latino-dance number involved a host of colourful costumes, and some impressively large piñata-style puppets. Unfortunately, the routine itself was underwhelming – more sad-sack than salsa.

Campest Moment
The rather brilliant Zumba class (think hip shaking and general ridiculousness) held by Suzi (Viva’s mum’s mate, and general thong-wearing, hilarity-provider) which seemingly without reason (although, who needs a reason?) involved lots of lycra-clad men. Hurrah! The hen parties in the audience were certainly pleased.

Total Number of Songs
The programme credits an impressive 22.

Spice Points
Perhaps my expectations were too high, but as a childhood Spice Girls’ mega-fan, and musical aficionado I expected a slicker, more polished show. I’m going to have to leave the spice rack half filled: 2.5/5 cloves.

Spamalot – Theatre Review

Spamalot

I don’t really like Monty Python. Back at school I was forced to listen to one particular group of friends endlessly quote the films before I had seen a single frame. By the time I got round to seeing the films, as shown to me by a girlfriend I didn’t particularly like (I was fifteen, I now only date people I like), I knew all the jokes off by heart and my adolescent self found the whole thing completely silly and not at all funny. We broke up soon after and, apart from October’s visit to watch A Liar’s Autobiography, have never returned to give Monty Python a second chance. Last week with free tickets being offered I had no choice but to swallow my pride, grab my nearest bearded friend, and skip down to The Playhouse theatre and watch Spamalot. The things I do for the love of blog.

As the show opened with a musical number about Finland, the actors had misheard the narrator (!), all my prejudices came rushing to the surface. This was set to be two hours of silly nonsense and I was almost certain I wouldn’t enjoy myself. Spamalot had quite the hill to climb. Slowly but surely I was won over. The bizarre retelling of the story of King Arthur “lovingly ripped off from” Monty Python and the Holy Grail slowly worked its charms on me until I was laughing along with all the die-hard Python fans in the audience. What finally got me was the Lady of the Lake singing The Song That Goes Like This; an over the top parody of Andrew Lloyd Webber style love songs. In fact it was the Lady of the Lake, as played by Anna-Jane Casey, that consistently made the show for me. Her songs, including Diva’s Lament – Whatever Happened to My Part?, were mostly meta-songs referencing the fact that they were in a stage musical. Elements like this really tickled my funny bone and justified performing a film on stage.

Stephen Tompkinson - SpamalotIn the past Tim Curry has received rave reviews from theatre critics in the role of King Arthur while Alan Dale has received weak reviews from my friends (who as Alan Dale fans are to be believed). The latest star to take the role is Stephen Tompkinson who spent the late nineties breaking all our hearts as he tragically romanced Assumpta in Ballykissangel. While Tompkinson’s voice may not be as powerful as his more experienced co-stars he really throws himself into his performance and genuinely seemed to be enjoying himself – something that is a benefit in such a broad comedy and something I hear Mr. Dale was sorely lacking.

Spamalot forced me to enjoy myself despite my best efforts and has made good progress in removing those demons from my teen years that I am apparently still battling. At this rate I’ll be able to watch Monty Python’s Life of Brian without having flashbacks to boring lunchtimes and evenings spent at the local vicarage (long story). The only downside to the show was one member of the audience, sat directly behind us, who seemed to have paid a lot of money only to say some of the lines moments before the actors onstage were able to. Monty Python are OK by me now, the fans still aren’t.

Spamalot is currently running at the Playhouse theatre in London and tickets can be bought online here ranging from £15 to £75.

All New People – Theatre Review

I’ve been putting off reviewing Zach Braff’s debut play All New People for a week now, scared to put into words just how underwhelmed it made me feel. All New People is a single act play set in a beach house in the middle of winter on Long Beach Island, New Jersey. Charlie (Zach Braff) is taking advantage of the isolation in order to commit suicide but is interrupted by an English real estate agent (Eve Myles), a drug dealing fireman (Paul Hilton) and a high-class prostitute (Susannah Fielding).

From this set-up the four characters spend ninety minutes discussing life, the universe, and everything as they try to convince Charlie that life is worth living whilst revealing their own tragic backstories. Each character is given a brief filmed flashback, projected onto the stage, which shows a shocking event from their past. Sadly these felt a little unnecessary as details came out in dialogue later on and seeing recognisable British actors like Amanda Redman doing their best American drawl took me out of the play.

On the whole the acting was without fault, Braff in particular should be commended for not giving himself the spotlight the entire time; he did write the play after all. Instead Braff made the most of his rants and ensured that even when in the background he was subtly drawing attention his way. Eve Myles (of Torchwood fame) was better than I had expected but got off to a rough start as her attempts at “wacky comedy” came off as a little try-hard.

Sadly the play as a whole didn’t really hold together well. The four characters all seemed to have been designed to be as quirky as possible, the backstories we were waiting to discover were of little consequence when they were revealed. Myles’ character in particular had such a bizarre history that felt wholly out of place in the play, and considering the subject matter involved (which I will avoid mentioning) felt a little cheap and crass when mentioned in such a passing manner.

All New People‘s worst crime is being easily forgettable and inconsequential, sorry Zach. All New People is on at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 28th April and tickets are available online but your money would be much better spent buying Garden State on DVD.

A Message from Zach Braff

Zach Braff has something he’d like to say to you:

The dead of winter, Long Beach Island, New Jersey, Charlie (Zach Braff), has hit rock bottom. Away from the rest of the world, this perfect escape is interrupted by a motley parade of misfits who show up and change his plans. A hired beauty, a fireman, and an eccentric British real estate agent desperately trying to stay in the country all suddenly find themselves tangled together in a beach house where the mood is anything but sunny.

In summary, Zach Braff has written a play called All New People which opens at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London on 22 February 2012, after brief visits to Glasgow and Manchester. For anyone who was of an impressionable age when they first saw Garden State, and it being their first taste of independent cinema became a bit obsessed and downloaded a lot of music by The Shins, this is an exciting opportunity to see Zach Braff perform his own writing again.

Sadly no Natalie Portman this time round, instead we get Eve Myles from Torchwood.

Buy tickets here, if you want. No pressure.

Any Scots reading, Mr Braff has a special message just for you:

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