Broadway smash 'Book of Mormon' opens at Straz in Tampa

mclear@bradenton.comNovember 10, 2013 

It's by far the most talked-about Broadway musical of the past couple of years. But still, Chris O'Neill says there are a lot of misconceptions about it.

"People think it's two-and-a-half hours of Mormon-bashing, but it's not," he said. "It satirizes religion as whole. I think that surprises people, that it's a real musical. It's got a lot of heart."

O'Neill plays one of the main characters in "The Book of Mormon" now on a national tour coming to the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa for two weeks beginning Tuesday.

"Mormons are the nicest people in the world," said O'Neill, who's not a Mormon. "The Mormons, when they come our show, they get it. The Mormon Church, they take out full-page ads in all of our playbills."

"The Book of Mormon," as anyone who cares about the Broadway musical already knows, is the creation of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the guys who gave us the wonderfully crude TV series "South Park," and Robert Lopez, co-composer and co-lyricist of "Avenue Q," the profane musical send-up of "Sesame Street."

That leads to another misconception.

"There a certain amount of foul language, as you'd expect from those guys," O'Neill said. "But people have the idea that it's F-word, F-word, F-word and that's the end of the show. It's actually a really good, sophisticated musical."

O'Neill's character, Elder Cunningham, is a Mormon missionary, a stereotypical nerd who soon discovers the job is way beyond his limited capabilities.

His co-worker, Elder Price, is a much more gung-ho missionary. But

his ambition is to work his way into a relatively cushy gig as a missionary in Orlando.

O'Neill was speaking, coincidentally, by phone from a tour stop in Orlando. That led to another misconception. Audiences there assumed the script had been adapted specifically for them. It's a common tactic in touring shows, meant to elicit cheap applause. But it didn't happen in this case.

"We say 'Orlando' like 20 times in the course of the show," O'Neill said. "We're not going to change it that much. We even have a set for it. But people here think we must say the name of whatever city we're in."

Elders Cunningham and Price do not end up in the magical city of Orlando, though.

"Because of some things that happen, because of me, they end up going to Uganda in Africa," O'Neill said. "And when they're there they encounter things like AIDS, infant mortality and female circumcision, some really serious problems."

Price is distressed, but Cunningham is thrilled just to finally have a friend, even one he just met a day before.

The residents of the Ugandan village, under constant threat from a brutal warlord, are merely trying to survive. So they're none too interested when the naive missionaries try to talk to them about the Book of Mormon, the religion's sacred text. It doesn't help that only one of the two missionaries has actually read the book.

Stone, Parker and Lopez developed the show over the course of seven years, and it hit Broadway in 2011. It won just about every Tony Award a musical can win, including Best Musical, and its cast album -- one of the best-selling Broadway musical recordings of all time -- won the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album.

The first U.S. tour started in 2012. O'Neill joined the show last December.

This is his first foray into musicals. He has a New York-based comedy duo called the Chris and Paul Show, and some casting officials from "The Book of Mormon" spotted him performing at the Edinburgh Fringe festival.

"We were actually performing in a cave," he said, "and they happened to come in and see us."

Even though he's only been playing Elder Cunningham for 11 months, O'Neill said he's now one of the most seasoned veterans in the cast.

"People come and go," he said. "It's just a matter of when their contracts are up. No one leaves this show voluntarily."

"The Book of Mormon" runs Nov. 12-24 at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $69-$153.50 plus service charge. More tickets are available for the second weekend. For information, call 813-229-7827 or go to strazcenter.org.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.

Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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