By Bill Hirschman
Aggressively, gleefully and literally irreverent, with references to genocidal civil war in Africa, rampant AIDS and the most profane lyric about the Almighty ever heard in a Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon is the most improbable smash since a prequel to The Wizard of Oz premiered a decade ago.
So it’s not odd that the national tour opening Tuesday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts is one of the most popular tickets in the Broadway Across America season with the orchestra section nearly sold out for most shows.
Written by a strange alliance of South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Avenue Q’s composer Robert Lopez, The Book of Mormon is a surprising hybrid of a traditional Broadway musical (while constantly sending it up with in jokes) and nose-thumbing in-your-face crude humor lampooning the strictures of organized religion.
It worked. Nine Tony Awards recognized the 2011 show about an odd couple of painfully naïve Mormons trying to make converts in a war-town Ugandan backwater. Besides the gate from the first and second national tours and a London production, the Broadway version currently sells more than 100 percent of the house each week for about a $1.6 million weekly gross, the highest on the Great White Way.
As a result, expectations are sky-high for the show that rides solidly on the shoulders of Mark Evans portraying the straight arrow Elder Price and Christopher John O’Neill portraying the wacky misfit Elder Cunningham.
“It’s a marathon,” O’Neill said with an infectious laugh in a phone interview earlier this month. “It’s 2 ½ hours of the crazy aerobics. We’re on stage for 98 percent of the show, so we’re on a strict schedule off-stage. We have to have naps. It’s not a rock star kind of life.”
Evans added in his native British accent, “It’s just the pace of the whole thing. The first 20 minutes sets up the tone of the whole evening. Ten months doing this and I still feel a wave of anxiety until that adrenaline starts kicking in.”
Not that they are complaining. Both have renewed their contracts for another six months and they have no trouble keeping the show fresh
“The material is so good that you really feel so passionately about what you’re doing,” Evans said, noting that that hasn’t always been the case in his career. While the structure of the show is carefully staged and choreographed, he and O’Neill have plenty of room to play with the tempo, pace and topspin.
Furthermore, the actors have to stay sharp because audiences react so differently from night to night, let alone from city to city. “You can’t predict it. It really, really keeps you on your toes. I never go into it feeling fully prepared,” Evans said. Not to mention the night he kicked off a shoe into mid-air or the night his pants fell down.
“In Texas, in the Bible Belt, they were some of the best shows. We had an old couple up front who we thought would leave, but they were among the first ones up dancing.”
A running joke picks on the Neverland of Orlando by name a dozen times. When the show played in Orlando three weeks ago, “it was crazy” because the audiences went bananas anytime Orlando was teased. “It was like a rock concert. It went like five hours long because a lot of people thought we were just adding that in because we were in Orlando.”
The material is way, way, way out there in the irreverence department with copious amounts of profanity, promiscuity and insolence. But the surprise to so many people is that while the show mercilessly skewers organized religion, it has a strong undercurrent in favor of faith.
Still, “people have to come in with an open mind,” Evans said. O’Neill added, “The greatest thing is when people get past some of the language, they realize that the show actually has a lot of heart to it.”
Veteran Broadway hand Larry Hochman, who won a Tony Award for co-orchestrating the score with Stephen Oremus, knew the piece’s secret ever since he saw a workshop and thought “this is the funniest, most outrageous show I have ever ever ever seen.”
“We’re ultimately not poking fun at a particular religion; we are poking fun at every religion, and yet you come away with the respect that when you boil it down to its true value, faith is helping people. It’s okay if the traditions or folklore seem silly or impossible because that’s not what important, ultimately, it’s an homage to the humans spirit.”
Well, that and a song that gives the middle finger to the Deity, he agreed with a chuckle.
“When you hear that fourth number of the show and you’re shocked out of your mind, don’t worry, it’s okay. You won’t have to go repent for having seen the show. It will come clear we’re taking you on an amazing ride.”
Note: The company will offer a limited and undetermined number of discounted tickets in the lower orchestra section for $25 through a pre-show lottery each day. Entries will be accepted at the box office beginning 2 ½ hours prior to each performance. Each person will print their name and the number of tickets they wish to purchase on a card that is provided. Two hours before curtain, names will be drawn at random. Cards are checked for duplication prior to drawing. Winners must be present at the time of the drawing and show valid ID to purchase tickets. Limit one entry per person and two tickets per winner. Tickets are subject to availability.
The Book of Mormon runs from Nov. 26-Dec. 22 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Broadway Across America-Fort Lauderdale series, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. No show on Thanksgiving. Tickets are $44.50 – $114.50 with club level seating $159.50. For more information, call 954-462-0222 or visit BrowardCenter.org.