Fifteen years ago, Matt Stone and Trey Parker set forth on a holy mission to transform the American sense of humor through the snarky gospels of "South Park." Now they have embarked on a journey to convert the oh-so-civilized realm of Broadway to their cause with "The Book of Mormon."
As fast, fresh and devilishly funny as the teachings of Cartman, this Tony-winning juggernaut has converted a wide swath of the population from theater critics to teenagers. Tickets to the San Francisco engagement, which runs through Dec. 30 at the Curran Theatre, sold out in less than two hours, though some seats are available through a daily lottery.
The frenzy to bask in the glory of this outrageous tuner, a collaboration between Stone, Parker and composer-lyricist Robert Lopez ("Avenue Q") has been unstoppable. It's like a cult that everyone who's anyone simply cannot wait to join.
That raises the question: Does the show live up to its hype? That may well be impossible given the colossal praise showered on this piece. Did this critic die and go to theatrical heaven? Not exactly. Then again, can anything live up to the massive expectations created by the incongruous mashup of Broadway musical and "South Park"?
But I am still cackling up a storm. This is a tale of two innocent Mormon missionaries, golden boy Elder Price (Gavin Creel) and schlubby Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner), who find that being super nice isn't enough to attract new recruits in a godforsaken Ugandan village beset by drought, warlords and AIDs. The blurry line between evangelizing and showmanship is very effectively skewered in "Hello!" and the limits of positive thinking are explored in the power ballad spoof "I Believe."
Sacrilege is par for the course here. In one diabolically funny song, the villagers break into a peppy ditty "Hasa Diga Eebowai" about giving the Lord the finger. "Hakuna Matata," it ain't. In another scene, Elder Price tries to recruit a machine gun-toting warlord (Derrick Williams) and ends up with a scripture stuck up his posterior. And certainly the Rafiki parody gives special pleasure to those of us who have experienced "The Lion King" multiple times.
Not all of the comedy lands, despite Casey Nicholaw's crisp direction. The central bromance seems pat. The flirtation between the nerdy Cunningham and the winsome local, Nabulungi (a lovely turn by Samantha Marie Ware) whom he refers to as Neutrogena and/or Neosporin, never generates many sparks.
And there is layer of subtext here, about the redemptive nature of believing in something no matter what it is, that is never fully explored. When the uber-geek Cunningham tells the villagers that the Book of Mormon involves hobbits, starships and Jedi, they believe him and so it becomes true for them in a deep and meaningful way.
Still, the wittiest moments in this pop culture pastiche evoke Stone and Parker's gift for unrestrained randomness. You may wonder why you are laughing about the chap with the maggots in his scrotum or the tragedy of female genital mutilation but you will giggle nonetheless. Then you will feel sort of guilty about it but not ashamed enough to stop.
Puerile, profane and utterly uncensored, there are times when the play feels like a longer, more elaborate episode of "South Park" that makes you snicker and squirm at the same time.
The audaciously pithy "Turn it Off" number, in which the missionaries discuss the bliss of repression, is a stand out. Elder McKinley (the magnetic Grey Henson) struggles valiantly to resist the urge to vamp as he sings the praises of suppressing his lust for men.
A case in point is the deliriously bizarre "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" interlude which involves a scorched wasteland containing Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, Genghis Khan and, wait for it, Starbucks coffee. There is something thrillingly liberating about smashing taboos, laughing in the face of life's evils, poking fun at everyone and everything so vigorously that no shtick is left unturned. This is an homage to the unmitigated glee of humor so wrong it's right.
There's scarcely time to catch one's breath as the show thumbs its nose at God, Bono and "The Lion King," not necessarily in that order. That's the miraculous chutzpah of this potty-mouthed musical, as it is with much of the "South Park" canon, and it's hard to resist.
If some of the songs are forgettable, the punch lines are divine -- if you are fond of the perverse and the twisted. From Ewoks to warlords, from Disney to Jesus (who sounds suspiciously like Cartman!), "Mormon" takes mockery way past the point of no return into the promised land of satire.
Book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone
Through: Dec. 30
Where: Curran Theatre. 445 Geary St., San Francisco
running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: Regular seats are sold out but a limited number of $29 tickets are available through a daily lottery two hours before the show. For details, call 888-746-1799 or go to www.shnsf.com.