BY JOHN FLEMING
In many ways, The Book of Mormon fits the formula of an old-fashioned buddy movie — think Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in, say, Road to Zanzibar — as it recounts the story of two mismatched 19-year-old Mormon missionaries sent from Utah to save some souls in Uganda.
Elder Price and Elder Cunningham are indeed an odd couple. Price is an upright alpha type, while Cunningham is a schlub who hasn't even read the Mormons' sacred text. In seeking to convert the Ugandans, Cunningham invents his own theology, drawn from Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and other pop culture. It's all filtered through the irreverent sensibilities of the musical's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, whose comic talents were honed on their long-running animated TV show, South Park, along with Robert Lopez, who wrote music and lyrics for Avenue Q.
Like their characters, the actors playing Price and Cunningham — Mark Evans and Christopher John O'Neill, respectively — are an unlikely pair to be topping the bill in the national tour of The Book of Mormon, the 2011 Tony Award winner for best musical that opens Tuesday at the Straz Center. They were interviewed by phone in October when the tour was in New Orleans.
Evans, 28, is from Wales, and getting cast in the show brought him to the United States for the first time. Even though his credits include high-profile roles such as Fiyero in the production of Wicked in London's West End, he felt some pressure preparing to play Price, the paragon of a homegrown American religion. "I'm the first British guy to play this all-American role in this all-American show in America," he said.
O'Neill, 31, has an even more improbable story. He is making his professional theater debut after spending a dozen years as part of a two-man comedy act, The Chris and Paul Show. Before landing his role as the hapless Cunningham, the last time he was in a play was as a teenager in Stamford, Conn. "I did theater in high school. That was mainly to get girls," he said.
The audition process for O'Neill was grueling. "The biggest challenge was the singing because I hadn't had any vocal training," he said. "They set me up with a voice coach, and I went through a month-long camp with the directors and the musical director. It was surreal. I kept thinking, 'What am I doing here?' It was crazy. I just went in and had fun."
Evans and O'Neill joined The Book of Mormon six months into the tour last December. Both are South Park fans and loved working with Parker and Stone. "They're such chilled-out guys," Evans said. "They're like two teenagers just having a laugh together. They haven't let their success get to them. Their priority is to tell the story and make people laugh."
O'Neill is following in the footsteps of Josh Gad, who originated the role of Cunningham on Broadway. "That was the most daunting thing, because Josh Gad was so great," O'Neill said. "He's such a powerhouse of energy. Well, that's kind of not me. The great thing about this whole process is how much creative freedom I had with the character. They've been very open to a different interpretation of Elder Cunningham. So I try to play him more ADHD, lovable but kind of spastic and all over the place. There are different ways to play him, and I'm definitely different than Josh Gad."
Parker, Stone and Lopez don't pull any punches in their musical, which has plenty of the adolescent hard-core humor that South Park revels in. In Hasa Diga Eebowai, an Act 1 number ripped off from The Lion King, the Ugandans sing and dance to lyrics that repeat again and again "F--- You, God!" (This is actually pretty mild compared with a gross-out pageant later that includes Elder Cunningham's embellishments to Mormon holy writ.)
"I'd be lying if I said we didn't have a walkout or two," Evans said. "It's not that it's offensive, it's more that it's shocking, like 'Oh, my goodness, I can't believe they went there.' Most people find it shocking because they feel like they shouldn't be laughing at it, even though they find it highly amusing. War, poverty, famine, AIDS, all these horrendous things. That's what they're singing about, in a very jovial, Disney way."
Sure, O'Neill added, Hasa Diga Eebowai is wildly profane, but that finally contributes to a rather sweet overall portrayal of the Mormons in Africa. "You need that song to get to where the story ends up," he said. "Once you get past the F-yous, and keep an open mind, the show has a lot of heart."