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Musical "Book of Mormon" opens in London to mixed reviews

Actor Neil Patrick Harris performs with the cast of 'The Book of Mormon' during the American Theatre Wing's 66th annual Tony Awards in New Y
Actor Neil Patrick Harris performs with the cast of 'The Book of Mormon' during the American Theatre Wing's 66th annual Tony Awards in New Y

By Belinda Goldsmith

LONDON (Reuters) - The controversial Tony awards-winning musical "The Book of Mormon" opened in London to mixed reviews on Friday in its debut outside the United States.

The musical, by the creators of the animated TV comedy "South Park", is an expletive-filled satire of two Mormon missionaries from Salt Lake City sent to Africa to win converts.

Writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone have the Mormons confront a thuggish one-eyed warlord terrorizing terminally ill villagers in Uganda in a world where AIDS is dominant and female circumcision rife.

The show, by Parker and Stone in collaboration with "Avenue Q" co-creator Robert Lopez, opened on Broadway in March 2011 to wide acclaim and won nine Tony awards, Broadway's highest honors.

The musical opened in London's West End theatre district on Thursday after a month of previews with a host of celebrities in attendance, including "Homeland" actor Damian Lewis and actress Kate Winslet with husband Ned RocknRoll.

Aggressive promotion, with billboards across London, and limited ticket sales helped create a buzz about the show at a time when theatres are using various schemes to fill seats and draw in new audiences.

Tickets to evening performances are sold out until June with a new batch of tickets released on Friday. The show's promoters are also holding a daily lottery which hands out 20 tickets.

Figures from the Society of London Theatre showed they earned 530 million pounds ($830 million) in 2012, a marginal rise on 2011, when attendance nudged up to 14 million.

Musicals dominated the West End last year with attendance of 8 million, a fall of 3 percent on 2011.

"The Book of Mormon", starring American actors Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner as the two mis-matched missionaries, received a mixed reception from London critics.

Theatre critic Henry Hitchings from London's Evening Standard newspaper said some theatergoers were bound to find the show puerile or offensive.

"Yet this is an affectionate portrait of culture clash and friendship, which parodies several classic musicals," he wrote, giving the show a four out of five-star rating.

"It manages the unlikely trick of rolling offensiveness and morality into a single package. For all its cartoonish devilry, it ends up feeling benign, joyous and even cuddly."

Telegraph critic Charles Spencer found it hard to warm to the show, with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints whose beliefs center on the Book of Mormon, an easy target.

"The Book of Mormon" strikes me as a decadent and self-indulgent musical, and its mixture of satire and syrup ultimately proves repellent," wrote Spencer. "I am the first to concede however that this is likely to be a minority view."

The Guardian called it "mildly amusing" while the Independent said the songs were not particularly memorable but "have bounce and bite and color".

(Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith; Editing by Erica Billingham)

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