by Richard Dodds
If you've watched South Park with any regularity, you pretty much know that the Church of Scientology won't be buying any ad time on the show. It's not that South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are picking on Scientology, at least not exclusively, but there was a fuss when Scientologist Isaac Hayes quit the cast because of the cartoon's L. Ron irreverence. You could have easily expected a few tremors from the Latter Day Saints when Parker and Stone announced a musical unambiguously titled The Book of Mormon, but a very strange thing has happened.
Flip through the musical's Playbill, and there are a series of full-page ads featuring happy faces with quotes like, "You've seen the play, now read the book." We're not talking Broadway libretto here, but rather the sacred text published in 1930 by Joseph Smith. Then just aim your smart phone at the QR Code at the bottom of the ads and be whisked off to a virtual Salt Lake City. Mormon leaders would have had to have their heads stuck deep in the Utah sands if they weren't a little bit nervous when the project was announced; more likely, they were lining up lawyers before deciding instead to buy ad space.
In trying to figure out how this mutual enabling of seemingly opposing forces could take place, you begin to see why the musical The Book of Mormon has found favor with such broad-based audiences. A musical that was really about Mormonism, be it pro, con, or neutral, would not have tickets selling on StubHub for nearly $1,000 a piece to the sold-out run at the Curran. The Book of Mormon uses the iconography of beaming young missionaries in short-sleeved white shirts and hair by Vitalis, already culturally dissonant in at least 49 of the 50 states, and then sends them to Uganda, where they can only seem more ridiculous, irrelevant, and dangerously clumsy. But then it lets them become heroes by, on the fly, rewriting their own scripture and disarming villains with blind enthusiasm. This is a feel-good musical despite invoking, among other topics, AIDS, rape, pedophilia, and genital mutilation.
In South Park, Parker and Stone have poked their fingers in the eyes of all manner of popular culture – their wonderful Mormon episode of affection-coated ridicule presaged the current show – and the musical theater has often been among their satirical touch points. They have brought aboard Tony-winning Robert Lopez to assist them with the book, music, and lyrics, and Lopez won his award for the Avenue Q score that made savvy thrusts into the musical canon.
With The Book of Mormon, the thrusts go deeper, but, as is always the case with good musical parody, the songs are entertaining in their own right. "Hasa Diga Eebowai" unabashedly evokes the don't-worry-be-happy uplift of "Hakuna Matata" from The Lion King, and the Mormon missionaries happily sing along with their tribal hosts until they learn what the words actually mean. Oops. And then the musical's creators verify that their Broadway influences run deep, mirroring "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" from The King and I as the Ugandans proudly present to visiting Mormon dignitaries their skewed version (thanks to the malleable missionaries) of Mormon history in "Joseph Smith American Moses." Oops again.
To co-direct the musical with Parker, Casey Nicholaw was a wise choice, because his prior Broadway credits also involve such musical-theater mashups as Spamalot and The Drowsy Chaperone. Nicholaw is also the choreographer, and his dance steps usually come with a wink and a nudge, whether it's all-American song-and-dance or ersatz tribal celebrations. My favorite musical moment comes when Ken-doll-pretty Elder Price so stuns a group of armed rebels with his naive enthusiasm that they end up joining him in the uplifting anthem "I Believe," as he sneaks in the lyric, "And I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people."
Gavin Creel finds much humor in the whitewashed Elder Price, whose dream missionary destination was Orlando. Price is horrified not only that his destination is Uganda, but that his partner is an anti-Ken, the nerdy Elder Cunningham played with fine comic instincts by Jared Gertner. Samantha Marie Ware is both gorgeous and charismatic as Nabulungi, a young tribal woman who has caught Elder Cunningham's eye even though he chronically mispronounces her name (Noxzema, Neutrogena, Nordstrom).
Elder Cunningham also helps her keep her clitoris, which is not a laughing matter. But the irreverent procedures taken to get there are fun, so add one saved clitoris to the feel-good ingredients that make up The Book of Mormon.
The Book of Mormon will run at the Curran Theatre through Dec. 30. The engagement is officially sold out, but a pre-show ticket lottery will be held prior to each performance. Details at www.shnsf.com.