I believe! Book of Mormon really is that good

Mormon 1
Phyre Hawkins (left) provides an African send-off to Mormon missionaries Elder Price (Gavin Creel, center) and Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner) in The Book of Mormon at the Curran Theatre. Below: Creel (center) and the cast celebrate the profane and profound joys of The Book of Mormon. Photos by Joan Marcus

Take it on faith: The Book of Mormon is every bit as profane and profound and funny and sweet as everyone says it is. The monster Broadway hit about Mormon missionaries in Uganda is now working its way around the country and just opened a sold-out, five-week run at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre as part of the SHN season.

Herewith, The Book of Theater Dogs on The Book of Mormon:

For I believe…that creators Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez have crafted a musical that is old-fashioned and contemporary at the same time, that is outrageous and (for the faint of heart) shocking while never roaming too far from the heartfelt center of the show. A true musical comedy in which the music is not only hummable but also energizing and exciting, Mormon inspires huge waves of laughter. You know when individual lyrics get laughs – not just punchlines and dialogue – you’re doing something right. The fact that Parker, Lopez and Stone collaborated on music, lyrics and book is fascinating and most likely accounts for expertly honed 2 1/2-hour production, which runs like a precision instrument without ever feeling cold or mechanical. Credit must also go to co-directors Parker and Casey Nicholaw, who also contributed the zesty choreography, for keeping the machine running at such an efficient clip. The only number in the entire show that doesn’t feel quite right to me, the one number that feels like something directly out of Stone and Parker’s “South Park” empire is the Act 2 “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” which needlessly goes for cheap laughs using people like Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnny Cochran.

Book of Mormon

For I believe…amid all the silliness and the nonstop attempts to skewer everything under the pop-culture sun, there’s a serious examination of faith here – its power, its abuses and its grace. Mormons provide an easy target because they’re distinctly American, they’ve only been around for 182 years and their actual Book of Mormon (sort of a third chapter to the Bible) contains some pretty far-out stuff like God living on a planet called Kolob and the notion that there were highly evolved tribes in ancient North America and that in the three days after his crucifixion, Jesus visited this tribe. (All these examples come from the show, but they all come from the teachings.) But the point here isn’t to make fun of Mormons, well, OK, it is a little bit, but this is high-speed broadband making fun of everyone. The point is more to say something about how powerful a human being’s faith is, how a human chooses to place that faith and the responsibility of whatever person or group is the recipient of that faith. The details about the Mormon teachings are funny because they seem as sci-fi as they do sacred, but nothing detailed here is any more outrageous than say a god taking corporeal form in a manger-born baby under a bright star that attracted visitors and little drummer boys from far and wide. Faith in itself is hopeful and life-affirming and a means to connect with other humans and with the divine, whatever that may be. The Book of Mormon, for all its Broadway trappings (and the spoofs of Wicked, The Sound of Music and The King and I and The Lion King among others are kind of brilliant in and of themselves), actually has something serious to say about the care and feeding of belief.

For I believe…the touring production is every bit as good as the original Broadway production. The painted flat sets by Scott Pask, the sharp lighting by Brian MacDevitt and the nine-piece orchestra (under the musical direction of Cian McCarthy and with musical supervision and vocal arrangements by Stephen Oremus) are all in great shape. Nothing is out of place here, but that’s as it should be for tickets that reportedly cost up into the hundreds of dollars. The real charm of the show, for all its sturdy construction and technical efficiency, comes from the cast, and in leads Gavin Creel as idealistic, egotistical Elder Price and Jared Gertner as shlubby misfit Elder Cunningham, we have two performers who know exactly how to generate big laughs without going for big laughs. Creel’s animated face and startlingly long arms (seriously, like the alien at the end of Close Encounters) make him cartoonish in the best way. He can get a laugh just from smiling or widening his eyes. And his voice is golden, no more so than on the show’s centerpiece ballad, “I Believe.” Gertner’s character could be just a variation on “South Park’s” tubby, belligerent Cartman, but in the right hands, like Gertner’s, Elder Cunningham emerges as a passionate, intelligent young man with barely a trace of social skills and a desperate need for connection. Gertner is absolutely hilarious as he mangles the Mormon teachings by infusing them with Hobbits, Star Wars characters and complete nonsense that his Ugandan disciples completely take to their hearts. Creel and Gertner make a great team (the former is lanky and tall, the latter is not), and they get great support from Samantha Marie Ware as Nabulungi, an innocent Ugandan woman who “texts” using an old typewriter and Grey Henson as the gay-but-can’t-talk-about-it Elder McKinley. Henson leads the troupe on the show’s stand-out number, “Turn It Off,” an ode to deep repression that includes sparkly vests and fantastic tapping. Kevin Mambo as Nabalungi’s dad also stops the show with “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” a “Hakuna Matata” send-up that translates to “fuck you, God.”

And lo, the audiences, they did laugh. The performers, they did expend much talent and energy. And God, not seeming to mind the middle finger, decreed that the money shall pour forth, and the world of musical theater has another touchstone until the next mega-hit doth rise. I believe.

[bonus interview]
I talked to the Book of Mormon creative team and members of the touring company cast for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

[bonus video]
Here’s original Broadway star Andrew Rannells (now on NBC’s “The New Normal”) Elder Price’s big Act 2 number “I Believe,” sung just before an encounter with a Ugandan warlord results in the placing of The Book of Mormon in a very uncomfortable body cavity.

The Book of Mormon is sold out. Sorry. But don’t despair completely. A limited number of $29 tickets are distributed by lottery two hours before each performance. The show continues through Dec. 30 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

One thought on “I believe! Book of Mormon really is that good

  1. Happy to hear you enjoyed the show! I won raffle tickets on Broadway and loved it! It’s coming to Minneapolis in a few months and I look forward to seeing it again. Truth be told I am not a big South Park fan and was a bit nervous before seeing the show. I am more conservative and I was afraid it was going to be offensive. Yes, there were some spots that I cringed a bit but overall I thought it was very witty, well written, and enjoyable.

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