Trey Parker and Matt Stone have always been equal-opportunity offenders. In South Park, they skewer everyone from liberals to conservatives, from perfect nuclear families to transgender elementary school teachers, with equal glee and abandon. In The Book of Mormon, now on stage through December 30, 2012, at the SHN Curran Theatre in San Francisco, they are just as unflinching when it comes to lily-white Utah Mormons, who are mostly depicted as repressed homosexuals, and the Ugandans the Utahans have been sent to save, who are either obsessed with clitoral mutilation or believe they can cure themselves of AIDS by raping infants.
Despite the tastelessness of these and other plot points, or perhaps because of them, Mormon won nine Tony Awards in 2011, and has been selling out houses on its first U.S. tour. (In an effort to stick a thumb in the eye of scalpers, SHN is offering a limited number of $29 tickets via a lottery conducted prior to each show.)
Gavin Creel leads the company of The Book of Mormon in a classic Broadway-musical production number.
On the night I attended, it was clear the halo of South Park had lured an entirely new, younger-than-usual crowd to the Thee-ah-tre. For what it's worth, I've seen all sorts of performances in lots of different types of venues for too many years to mention. Plenty of those productions have definitely aspired to being hip (Rent and American Idiot come to mind), but this may have been the first time it actually felt cool to be seeing a play. That's right: I just used the words "cool" and "play" in the same sentence. In fact, the energy in the lobby before the show felt rather like the vibe you'd get before a Black Keys concert at, say, The Fox in Oakland, except everybody was dressed nice and smelled better.
Jared Gertner as Elder Cunningham.
Sociological backdrop aside, Mormon succeeds first and foremost because it is just one hell of a show, aided by the contributions of co-author Robert Lopez, who also co-wrote Avenue Q. The production numbers nail their elements, song after song, with music that alternately soars and teases, and lyrics that adhere to the Broadway formula of sassy surprise, then go further by surprising us again with seemingly endless strings of F-bombs ("Hasa Diga Eebowai" has permanently replaced "Hakuna Matata" in my songbook). Highlights of the first act include a duet titled "You and Me (But Mostly Me)," performed by Gavin Creel as the sinfully proud, tall-and-lean Elder Price, and Jared Gertner, his Jonah Hill-like short, fat and dumpy sidekick, Elder Cunningham. Price is the Mormon golden boy, the hard worker everyone, including Cunningham's father, admires. Cunningham is the schlub who, naturally, will be given the opportunity to prove himself as more than a pathological liar by (you guessed it) proving the virtues of pathological lying.
Elder Price (Gavin Creel).
In fact, Gertner's Cunningham, along with Samantha Marie Ware, who plays a guileless Ugandan lass named Nabulungi (hilariously, Cunningham never gets her name right, calling her Neosporin, Neutrogena and Napa Valley, basically anything that starts with the letter N), may be the real stars of the show, although it's not for a lack of energy on the part of Creel, who is the perfect vehicle for co-director Casey Nicholaw's razzle-dazzle choreography. Ware shines in her solo, "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," which manages to be both poignant and sidesplitting, while Gertner is the unlikely leader of the company in "Man Up." Gertner gets his character so right, from his awkward annoying laugh to his clumsy body language, suggesting a fidgety adolescent in an adult's body. Together, their performances culminate in the sexual-innuendo-filled "Baptize Me." It almost, but not quite, makes you want to take the plunge, too.
The Book of Mormon continues through December 30, 2012, at the SHN Curran Theatre in San Francisco. For more information, visit shnsf.com.
All photos: Joan Marcus.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED