The Tony Award-winning musical The Book of Mormon arrives at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre this week for a 16-show run (Oct. 29 through Nov. 11). It may be Orlando’s most anticipated Broadway tour since The Lion King, and no one seems more excited about it than Christopher John O’Neill, who co-stars as exuberantly incompetent missionary Elder Cunningham. I spoke with the actor last week about the acclaimed show’s famous creators, infamous language and local connections.
Unusually for the co-headliner of a national tour, O’Neill is an award-winning comic but had no professional theater experience prior to auditioning for the role. “I haven’t done much musical theater; I did stuff in high school but that was in the background to meet girls,” he admits. “I do a two-man comedy act called The Chris and Paul Show. … We were performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival … [and] one of the [Book of Mormon] casting directors happened to be there and asked if we could sing and we were like, ‘Of course’ – totally lying.”
That chance encounter led to a monthlong audition “boot camp” experience O’Neill calls surreal: “Honestly, from the beginning I was completely certain that I wasn’t going to get the part, [but] they kept calling me back.” Even now he seems amazed that he was cast. “I remember before we got to Scotland we were talking about how much we wanted to see the show. So the fact that I’m on tour doing the show is crazy!”
Adding to the “craziness” of auditioning was working with show creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park fame. “Coming from a comedy background, those guys are my idols.” O’Neill recalls, “The first night I’m sitting in my dressing room getting my hair done, and Trey Parker is standing right behind me, looking at me, shaking his head. You can clearly see that the wheels were turning … I remember [he] gave me a breakdown of all my emotions through the show: ‘In this scene you should be super-excited, and in this scene you should be really f’ing excited’ – a cheat sheet, since we got thrown into the show so quickly.”
Another famous name hovering over him is Josh Gad, who earned a Tony nomination for originating the role. “That was the scariest part. Obviously [Gad] was so good in the part. It was such an iconic character that he made; he was so loud and crazy, what he was able to do with his voice. … He’s some kind of freak of nature to be able to do what he did every night.” O’Neill adds, “I’m not Josh Gad; I’m not going to go up there and try to do some shitty knockoff Josh Gad impression. … Every production – the Broadway cast, the national tours – we’re all totally different, we all have our own takes on the character.”
Much has been made of the script’s “offensive” content and language, but O’Neill thinks Orlando’s supposedly conservative audiences should handle it fine. “When you come to this show, you should have an open mind and realize that the writers are the guys that created South Park, so there’s going to be the occasional swearword here and there … [but] this isn’t two and a half hours of ‘Let’s just say bad words and fart jokes and offend people.” He adds that the very people he worries will be offended are often the most enthusiastic: “It’s funny because [you see a] 95-year-old couple in the front row … and then they’re the first ones up at the end of the show, clapping and dancing and smiling.”
Likewise, he thinks local Mormons are more likely to enjoy the show than feel attacked. “We have a lot of Mormons who see the show, and they laugh for reasons that we don’t even realize. They get all of the inside jokes … The Mormon religion in the show is just a jumping-off point. As the show goes on it becomes less about Mormonism and more about faith in general.”
One thing he’s certain local audiences will respond to are numerous gently mocking shout-outs to Central Florida’s tourist attractions. “We love to engage the audience, and their energy really feeds the performance,” says O’Neill. “Obviously we’ve been very excited to see how that reaction is going to be with how many times Orlando is mentioned in the show.”
When I suggest that the verse devoted to the City Beautiful in the song “Two by Two” will be a showstopper, he laughs, “It’s going to be a five-hour show! We’re so excited about that.”
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