As national tour production "The Book of Mormon" heads to Baltimore, cast members discuss what it's like to deliver the show's biting satire and ultimate message.
Cast members in the national touring production of the ever-so-subversive Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon" have been known to ask each other after a performance: "Did we lose anyone today?"
They don't mean onstage.
When the show returns to Baltimore on Tuesday for a two-week run at the Hippodrome Theatre, where it broke a house box office record in 2014, some attendees may be first-timers. And that means an unsuspecting soul or two might bolt prematurely, shocked by what goes on in this send-up of Mormonism and a whole lot more.
"You have to learn to leave your political correctness at the door," says actor James Vincent Meredith. "This isn't for everybody."
Meredith plays Mafala Hatimbi, protective father of the naive Nabulungi in the Ugandan village that turns out to be the destination chosen by Mormon church leaders for two young men, eager Elder Price and not-quite-grounded Elder Cunningham, as their first missionary assignment.
That much of "The Book of Mormon" takes place in Africa is one of the early surprises — OK, shocks — for newcomers. And it's an awfully poor, beleaguered portion of that continent, complete with rampant disease and a ruthless warlord.
The missionaries' attempt to spread the word of the Latter-day Saints in this milieu gets compromised and complicated in ways that could only have been imagined by the guys responsible for this show — Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the pathbreaking animated TV series "South Park"; and Robert Lopez, co-creator of the off-color musical "Avenue Q."
"The Book of Mormon" would have made plenty of waves just for the way it gets laughs from the story of Angel Moroni, Joseph Smith, a set of golden plates and various other elements of the faith. (The church good-naturedly takes out ads in Playbills, saying, "You've seen the play, now read the book.")
"To Trey and Matt's credit, everything they say in this show about Mormonism, they're not lying about it," Meredith says. "During rehearsals, there would be pages taped to the wall from the actual Book of Mormon so we could see what's really there. The show comes from a place of truth."
"Aren't all religions a little ridiculous sometimes?" says Candace Quarrels, who plays Nabulungi.
Adds Elder Price-portrayer David Larsen: "I don't think it's being malicious in any way. It's poking fun, not making fun of it."
There's something affectionate in the way the missionaries are treated in the musical, a sense of respect for their commitment and cheerfulness. Even nerdy, needy, stocky Elder Cunningham, whose grasp of the faith couldn't be more tenuous, is never less than an endearing character.
"He's likable because, one, he's really funny," says Cody Jamison Strand, who played Cunningham on Broadway and reprises it in the touring cast. "And, two, he's just got the purest heart. But he's just so bad at being a missionary. And he wants a friend so bad that he gets himself in situations he can't get out of; the only way is to lie."
Those lies catch up with Cunningham in a big way when the action switches to Uganda, where the villagers have had their fill of religions promising a better life. At this point in the show, the humor and satire leap over the top, requiring audiences to leap, too.
"In some theaters, depending on the lighting, we can see the jaws drop," Quarrels says. "But that means we're connecting. After a second, I can see people looking around them and thinking, 'Well, they find this funny, so I guess it's OK. I can laugh too.' We really don't get many people walking out."
Like "South Park," the musical doesn't hesitate to go in directions that people might consider too serious (AIDS, female genital mutilation) or too tasteless.
A wild production number in Act 2 is extra-resonant of "South Park." The "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" manages to work in appearances by Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer and — well, it has to be seen to be believed.
"This show leaves no stone unturned," Strand says.
The depiction of the downtrodden Ugandans may make some theater-goers particularly uncomfortable. The villagers' first, deceptively upbeat song involves super-foul cursing of God for the appalling conditions they experience daily. It's all part of the constant upending of expectations and in-your-face disregard of conventional norms for a musical.
"I think there were people who didn't audition because of that," says Casey Nicholaw, the show's co-director (with Parker) and choreographer (he won a Tony Award for that). "But it's satire. And the context makes it OK. The Ugandans sing, 'If you don't like what we say, try living here a couple days.' They have to say [that curse] just to get through."
Meredith doesn't see the African part of the plot as demeaning.
"The main thing about playing Ugandans is that we know that a lot of the things they talk about in that cheerful-sounding song is true," the actor says. "It comes from a place of deep hurt and deep pain."
The figure of a general in the musical is based on a real figure, an extremely violent Liberian who adopted a vulgar nickname (it gets more vulgar in the show). Such connections to the real world, even layered with outrageousness, "make it easier" to perform in "The Book of Mormon," Meredith says.
Quarrels picks up on that point.
"This is real stuff. [Female genital mutilation] is still going on; Nigeria only just passed a law against it," she says. "We have to get up there onstage and put ourselves in these Ugandans' shoes. They're going through the absolutely worst situations. And prayer hasn't helped them. If we just do it jokingly, it would be horribly offensive. We have to be as honest as possible."
Actors in "The Book of Mormon" have been known to tread lightly when letting family and loved ones know about the gig.
"My poor Southern parents," Quarrels says with a laugh. "Having them see it was a little scary. But they laughed just as hard as everybody else."
Strand faced a tricky situation.
"My dad is a pastor in the Assembly of God," the actor says. "When I told my mom what I was going to audition for, she said, 'We won't tell your father about this and hope you don't get it.' When I got the part, she said, 'We'll ease your father into it.' He's seen it at least 15 times by now."
Larsen even got support from an older generation.
"I never thought my grandparents would come to see it," he says, "but they've seen it three or four times. My grandma said, 'I know where to cover my eyes now.' The beauty of the show is that it goes so fast that by the time you're shocked, we're already on to the next thing."
Meredith has heard from people surprised not so much by the tone of the musical as by the makeup of the cast.
"Because this show follows the journey of those two white missionaries, they're the ones in all the ads," Meredith says. "Friends of mine of color have come up to me after a performance and said, 'Man, I had no idea there were so many black folk in the show.' And we're half of it."
For some theater-goers, the assorted surprises in "The Book of Mormon" could turn out to have an after-effect.
"If even one or two people are inspired to open up a book or Google to look up anything about Uganda, the general, Latter-day Saints or religion in general, I would not say we're doing our job, because that's not what this is about," Meredith says. "But it would not be a bad thing. I hope the conversation continues."
Also worth discussing is the way that, for all of its genre-stretching, "The Book of Mormon" remains an old-fashioned Broadway musical, tap dancing and all.
"That's what made it a success," Nicholaw says. "Trey and I both have a love for musicals. And even though there's this risky contemporary satire that pushes the envelope, you're in a comfortable place with this show."
There's even a little message — a moral, even — before the final curtain. As Elder Price puts it, "We can still work together to make this our paradise planet."
"The ending is very positive and a little charming," Strand says. "It all makes sense. There's some angry [stuff] going down, but just take a deep breath and embrace each other."
And as for the Ugandans, "They are much better off than at the beginning of the show," Larsen says.
On most stops of the tour, cast members go out into the house after select performances with buckets to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
"We get to hear from people about what they thought," Meredith says. "I can't tell you the number of times people say, 'Man, I really didn't expect to be so emotionally connected to those two [missionaries] and to Nabulungi's journey.' It's surprising to find out how much people are affected by this show, even in the middle of 'I can't believe they just did that.'"