For a lot of young stage actors, getting cast in a huge Broadway musical right out of school might be the ultimate dream.
Jacques C. Smith, though, did that vision one better: He was plucked from the University of California San Diego theater program to take on a plum role in the smash hit “Rent” while he was still in school.
“It is a wild story, but that is so absolutely true,” Smith says now with a laugh of that life-changing moment 22 years ago, when he was tapped to play Benny in the show’s Broadway production — with one year still to go in his MFA studies. (Amazingly, the Princeton grad was able to complete his UCSD degree.)
“I thought my career would be doing Shakespeare festivals. I didn’t think it would be big Broadway musicals.”
Actually, it has turned out to be both. Smith played Jacques in “As You Like It,” among other roles, as part of the Old Globe’s 2012 Shakespeare Festival (and was most recently on a San Diego stage with the 2015 La Jolla Playhouse production of “Blueprints to Freedom”).
Now he’s back with another Broadway musical — one that rivals “Rent” in its rarefied level of success: “The Book of Mormon,” whose latest touring production hits the Civic Theatre next week.
Smith plays Mafala Hatimbi, the good-natured Ugandan villager who helps regale the show’s well-meaning but hapless Mormon missionaries with that extremely profane “ode” to a higher power, “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” (Accompanied by an equally profane gesture.)
The L.A. resident has been with “Mormon” for just over a year now, taking a hiatus from acting in film and TV, where his credits include such series as “Oz” and “The Choir.”
He welcomes the chance to be onstage again: Theater “is a passion of mine, and it was the primary one,” Smith says. “It always hits a vein and feeds me artistically in a way that the others don’t” — even if “they feed my pocket better.”
And as he puts it: “There’s still something about the immediacy of an audience every night.”
It’s been more than eight years now since “Mormon” premiered on Broadway, winning nine Tony Awards, including the best-musical prize.
So by now, what Smith says about the musical should be a surprise to no one: “It definitely shocks people.” (What else would you expect from a show created by the minds behind the gleefully cheeky “South Park,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone?)
Of course “if that were the only thing we served, at this point the excitement would have worn off,” Smith says of the show, co-directed by San Diego’s own Casey Nicholaw. “But there is sincerity in telling a story that is one of good will. There is a great heart to the show.
“One of the ways I like to describe this show is, it shows us how much we can learn, and how much our lives can change, by listening to people who are not exactly like ourselves.
“There are people who are shocked, there are people who are offended, there are people who don’t get it. But my thought is, art should elicit a response. No matter what.”
Plus, with this “Mormon” tour alone having notched its 5 millionth patron last fall, “it’s been proven now over time that the show works,” says Smith. “And that it’s not just something to push buttons.”
“The Book of Mormon”
When: Opens July 23. 7 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Through July 28.
Where: Broadway/San Diego at the Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown.
Tickets: About $36 and up
Phone: (619/858/760) 570-1100