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BWW Reviews: THE BOOK OF MORMON Is Freakin' Awesome

"OMG, what a freakin' awesome show!" said someone in the lobby during intermission for The Book of Mormon - the hottest ticket in San Francisco right now. The Book of Mormon has been hailed as one of the top musicals of the decade and now through January 19, 2014, San Francisco audiences will have the opportunity to judge for themselves as to whether a musical about Mormons on a mission to win converts to the Church of Latter Day Saints deserves such an accolade. If opening night was any indication, then the Book of Mormon has nothing to fear. Holding court at SHNSF's Orpheum Theatre, the show was greeted with riotous laughter, thunderous applause and, in the end, a rousing standing ovation. In short, it was spectacular.

Let's start with the stats. It was written by the satirical dynamic duo of Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame along with writer Robert Lopez, who won the Tony for Best Original Score for Avenue Q (which some have called the rate-R version of Sesame Street for grown-ups). So you're talking some heavy-weight audacious, pugnacious paragons of parody with rapier wits and huge cajones to boot. And they weren't afraid to swing them in the service of their show and it paid off for them big time. 'Mormon' took the Broadway world by storm garnering an astonishing fourteen Tony nominations and taking home nine, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score for the triumphant trio, who redefined what it meant to be a triple threat on Broadway that night at the 2011 Tony Awards.

A musical about Mormons. What's so fearsome about that? Only the end of organized religion as we know it. Okay, maybe not quite that but clearly, behind the lampooning, biting humor and the eminently hummable tunes, the Book of Mormon is really a call for religion to be hu-man-i-fied; that is, brought back down to earth in the service of humanity. Yes, it skewers Mormons, but the send-up is done in such a goofy and yes, loving way that you can't help but laugh, even if it might be at your own expense. Oh yeah, yours, because even though the focus is on Mormons, it's really about all literalized religions. Stone has called the show an "atheist love letter to religion" and I think that might be spot on but more on that later.

Broadway aficionados will quickly catch on that 'Mormon' is also an homage as well as a spoof of all things Broadway. With references to Wicked, Lion King and the Sound of Music just to name a few - and with an almost apostolic adherence to the traditional musical format, 'Mormon' has got it all.

The show begins at the Latter-day Saint version of boot-camp in Provo, Utah where handsome missionary-in-training Elder Kevin Price (the glorious Nic Rouleau) is preparing for his two-year mission assignment, which he is certain will be spent in Orlando, Florida. He knows he's an awesome Mormon and hasn't a doubt that Heavenly Father will give him the gig of his dreams. What a shock then, when he finds out that he's being sent to Uganda - and that he's been paired with a nerdy elder named Arnold Cunningham (a wonderfully bumbling A.J. Holmes). Arnold, for his part, is over-the-moon about playing second-string to the great and powerful Price.

So away they go - two white guys in ties off to baptize the unwashed masses in Uganda and save their souls for Jesus. Armed only with The Book of Mormon -- that all-American sequel to the Bible that prophet Joseph Smith copied down from heaven-sent golden plates in the 1840s in upstate New York -- the boys are determined to make the other Elders proud.

What a joy it is to watch Rouleau and Holmes embody the buddies in all their newly minted glory. Full of verve and proselytizing potential Rouleau's Price sings a thinly veiled tribute to himself in the duet "You and Me (but Mostly Me)," while his sidekick Cunningham interjects when he can, thrilled to be second mate and the side dish, if you will, to Price's place as the main course on the table of life.

Scott Pask won a well-earned Tony for his scenic design, taking the boys from pristine Provo, Utah to the underbelly of Uganda in a New York minute. He transforms the stage over and over (his Spooky Mormon Hell is a sight to behold) but keeps the polished proscenium intact throughout the show. An alabaster white architectural approximation of contemporary Mormon temples (think space ship to the stars) the structure is graced with a gleaming golden statue of the Mormon angel Moroni that spins and twirls at pivotal points in the show.

The mission-bound boys arrive in Uganda and are immediately robbed at gunpoint by soldiers of the local warlord (the not-to-be-messed-with David Aron Damane). Shaken, the Elders make their way to the war-torn village that they've been assigned to and quickly realize that their sunny-side-up training has left them ill-prepared to deal with AIDS-ravaged Africans who are also dealing with dysentery and poverty and have the superstitious belief that having sex with virgins (including babies) can cure AIDS. Add to that a warlord who believes that the clitoris is an abomination and aims to rid his world of them and you've got a really f-d-up situation. It's also outrageously funny. Really. (Yeah, it's also just a tad racist but that's an article for another day.)

Syesha Mercado (American Idol Alum and Dreamgirls' Deena in the 2009 tour) simply shines as Nabulungi, the daughter of the village elder (played wonderfully by James Vincent Meredith). She's heard it all before and the Mormon brand of salvation is definitely not for her. But after one of the villagers is shot dead for defending his wife to the warlord, Nabulungi seizes onto the Elders as the village's one-way ticket to paradise.

In a heart-wrenching and poignantly humorous song, Mercado's plaintive voice rings out, extolling the virtues of Sal Tlay Ka Siti, Ootah (Salt Lake City, Utah). "Sal Tlay Ka Siti, the most perfect place on Earth/Where flies don't bite your eyeballs and human life has worth....And I hope that when I get there, I'll be able to fit in..../I'm on my way...soon life won't be so shitty/Now salvation has a name; Sal Tlay Ka Siti." Her determination and leadership is accepted by the villagers and soon everyone gets baptized. (But I was left wondering just how accepted she and the other Africans would be in "Ootah.")

Another shout-out must be given to Pierce Cassedy who plays the closeted Elder McKinnley. He simply dazzles in this role, especially when singing "Turn It Off," a song that teaches the neat Mormon trick of repressing all feelings that just don't fit the Mormon mold. The song turns into an irrepressible tap number and got big applause on opening night.

Choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who also co-directed (winning the Tony for his direction alongside Trey Parker), is at the top of his game with wonderfully inspired dancing that juxtaposes squeaky clean, wholesome Mormon movements with the tribal undulations of the Ugandan villagers. What's nice is that the dance arc follows the story arc. Toward the end, when the villagers have become their own version of Latter Day Saints, their dancing mimics the Provo boys, as do their costumes (wonderful, Tony nominated creations by Ann Roth).

I stated earlier that Matt Stone called The Book of Mormon an "atheist love letter to religion" but make no mistake - it's also a ringing condemnation of religion's tendency to literalize their particular stories and focus on the afterlife instead of this life. And, lest that oh-so-important point gets lost in the laughter, the tagline and through-line of the show is "I've got maggots in my scrotum." In fact it's the last line of the show and serves to highlight what should really be considered sacred - the alleviation of human suffering.

Robert Lopez adds elsewhere that the show is about "regaining your faith once you realize that all religious stories might not be the truth." A more hu-man-i-fied and down to earth religion should change people's actual lives. "Who cares what happens when we're dead," sing the white guys in ties along with the newly baptized Ugandan LDSers. "We shouldn't think that far ahead. The only Latter Day that matters is tomorrow!"

Go tomorrow or any other latter day to see "The Book of Mormon." You'll laugh your ass off.

THE BOOK OF MORMON - Musical Comedy
Book, Lyrics and Music by Robert Lopez, Trey Parker and Matt Stone
Now thru January 19, 2014
Orpheum Theatre at Hyde and Market Streets in San Francisco

Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus

The Book of Mormon: SHNSF Orpheum Theatre

Syesha Mercado shines as Nabulungi in Book of Mormon

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