Performing Arts

‘Book of Mormon’ brings its innocence and raunchiness to Miami

Monica L. Patton sings to newly arrived missionaries David Larsen and Cody Jamison Strand in ‘The Book of Mormon’ at the Arsht Center.
Monica L. Patton sings to newly arrived missionaries David Larsen and Cody Jamison Strand in ‘The Book of Mormon’ at the Arsht Center. Joan Marcus

The earnest, appealing and flat-out funny missionaries of The Book of Mormon are headed back to South Florida, this time for a two-week run at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts starting on Tuesday.

The actors sporting the name badges “Elder Price” and “Elder Cunningham” are different from the performers in the show’s first national tour. That company turned the Tony Award-winning musical’s month-long run at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts a year ago into a sold-out smash. Chances are, the second national touring cast will do the same at the Arsht.

Almost a decade after the guys who dreamed it up first began working on it, The Book of Mormon remains one of Broadway’s hottest shows. The musical by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who collaborated with Avenue Q composer Robert Lopez, still regularly sells more than 100 percent of capacity (thanks to standing room) at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, where it has been running since 2011.

No one takes a hit like that for granted, least of all co-director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, whose other Broadway director-choreographer credits include Elf, Aladdin and The Drowsy Chaperone, as well as the choreography for Spamalot.

“I hope it will run for years. We all know it’s so hard to create a musical. And to be successful on this level is an absolute blessing,” Nicholaw said recently from New York, where he was recovering from shoulder surgery before plunging into his next projects — directing the world premiere musical Tuck Everlasting at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in January, then staging the spring tryout of the Broadway-bound musical Something Rotten! at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre. Also on the horizon is Animal House: The Musical.

Nicholaw shared Book of Mormon directing duties with Parker, though the show’s razzle-dazzle choreography was all his own. He says he and Parker “got along like two peas in a pod” and that he enjoys wearing two hats.

“I love having that responsibility. My directing moves like choreography, and I like telling stories through dance,” Nicholaw says.

The story in The Book of Mormon is a doozy, an improbable blend of the gross-out sensibility of South Park, a surprisingly sweet buddy story and a love letter to the Broadway musical. It focuses on two couldn’t-be-more-different young “elders,” the straight-arrow Kevin Price and pudgy loser Arnold Cunningham, who are paired for two years of missionary work.

Exemplary and more than a little confident, Price dreams of being assigned to his favorite city: Orlando. Instead, he and Cunningham, a lonely guy with a giant heart and surprisingly little knowledge about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, are sent off to spread the word in war-torn Uganda. There, they face a rampaging warlord bent on having all the girls and women in his territory circumcised, widespread cases of AIDS, stark poverty and famine.

Doesn’t sound like the stuff of musical comedy, does it? Yet the show succeeds in pleasing South Park fans, Broadway aficionados and most doubters.

“The audience loves this show so much,” says Cody Jamison Strand, who played Elder Cunningham on Broadway and is now doing the part on tour. “People expect crude, in-your-face humor. But they get heart and respect and compassion. The jokes don’t come from a mean place at all.”

Cunningham is in many ways the comic center of The Book of Mormon. He’s an eager-to-please guy without friends and a tendency to improvise when he doesn’t know something — which happens a lot. His religious “teaching,” equal parts scripture and sci-fi, leads to the offensive yet hilarious “pageant” Joseph Smith American Moses, a number inspired by the Small House of Uncle Thomas from The King and I.

Strand concedes that Cunningham is “loud and obnoxious” but has empathy for his character.

“He’s a really nice guy who tries way too hard. He’s an eccentric dude but really a good person. What he does comes from a sad place,” the actor says.

David Larsen plays opposite Strand as Elder Price, the handsome missionary whose unbroken string of successes snaps in Uganda.

“He’s a real go-getter, a Type A personality,” Larsen says. “He expects to do well, and he does do well in all things. So what happens to him is a shock to the system.”

As for that important onstage chemistry between Price and Cunningham, Larsen says, “Cody is my partner in crime. We get along really well. We can trust each other onstage … We try to bring the two characters across as genuine, real people.”

Larsen has been directed in the role by both Parker and Nicholaw and says he gets something different from each.

“Trey is very down-to-earth, smart and adept at working with very different people. He was funny, but more like a regular guy. He knows the show inside and out, where the jokes are and how to get there,” Larsen says. “Casey is a former performer. He knows how to make things work eight times a week, how to keep a show consistent.”

Before he turned to choreography and direction, Nicholaw performed on Broadway in a string of musicals, including Crazy for You, Victor/Victoria, Steel Pier, Saturday Night Fever, Seussical and Thoroughly Modern Millie. But he’s far more content now, working with creative collaborators to solve puzzles like finding exactly the right balance between innocence and raunchiness in The Book of Mormon.

“I don’t miss performing,” he says. “I’m much happier being papa than baby.”

If you go

What: ‘The Book of Mormon’ by Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez.

Where: Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through Dec. 14.

Cost: $39-$125 (lottery for $25 cash-only tickets held 90 minutes before each performance at Arsht Center box office; limit two tickets per winner).

Information: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.

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