FRESNO — “The Book of Mormon” is coming to the Central Valley and it’s likely to convert a few people — into musical theater fans.
The musical, which pokes fun at the Mormon religion, was written by Robert Lopez, co-creator of “Avenue Q” and Disney composer, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the satirical masterminds behind “South Park” and “Team America: World Police.” The musical was first staged in 2011 and has since become one of the most successful musicals of all time, grossing over $500 million dollars.
And while the musical dedicates itself to having fun at the expense of the religion, Stone has called the musical an “atheist’s love letter to religion.”
“I know a lot of people who are Mormon or ex-Mormon and they find the show to be cathartic, in laughing at parts of their faith that they feel funny about,” actor Andy Huntington Jones said. “The show definitely pokes fun at the religion, but it also celebrates the idea that we need something to believe in and it celebrates friendship, learning and growth.”
Jones added that the message of the musical isn’t that Mormonism — or any other religion – is wrong, or to make anyone feel bad but that we should be able to examine our own beliefs and laugh at ourselves from time to time.
Jones, a University of Michigan graduate, will experience the Central Valley for the first time when the show comes to Fresno’s Saroyan Theatre Oct. 3-7. The actor said he likes to hike while in new cities on tour – he joined “Mormon” in January — and is planning a Yosemite trip between show times.
A veteran actor of productions like “Cats,” “West Side Story” and “Bullets over Broadway,” Jones plays Elder McKinley, who invites the two main characters, missionaries Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, to Uganda — rather than their first choice of Florida — to help with the church’s flat-lining conversion rates.
“[McKinley] handles that like he handles other difficult parts of life — with a smile and some denial,” Jones said about his character.
While the missionaries try to convert the inhabitants of a remote Ugandan village, the villagers themselves are preoccupied with other factors in their society like AIDS, famine and oppressive warlords.
The youthful naiveté of elders Price and Cunningham is a big part of what is so endearing about the musical and why it’s so easy to forgive the show’s lampooning, Jones said, adding that it’s easy for anyone to relate to the youthful idealism of the main characters.
“I think this show would be different — both ‘Mormon’ and ‘South Park’ — if they were 65-year-old men doing horrible things. That's past the waypoint for us to forgive you,” Jones joked.
The characters must deal with a crisis of faith after being exposed to new truths and points of view. They also are faced with the idea that maybe a plucky can-do attitude can’t solve all of the world’s problems – which is a theme of Parker and Stone’s “South Park,” which revolves around how a group of fifth grade boys deal with the sometimes crazy — and offensive — world around them.
“I think that’s the reason why ‘South Park’ has had such longevity — it’s crude and not afraid to say anything to get a point across but there’s always a really meaningful, smart point,” he said, adding that “South Park” and “Book of Mormon” share that “heart-felt” aesthetic.
The 22nd season opener of "South Park" aired on Wednesday.
Jones said that “Book of Mormon” being co-written by Parker and Stone has exposed the musical to an audience that may not come out to see Broadway shows otherwise.
The writing duo had created musical films before “Book of Mormon” with their first film “Cannibal: The Musical” and later the “South Park” movie, but had yet to bring a stage show to life until the debut of "Book of Mormon."
“[The show is] really unique and I think that’s interesting for consistent theater-goers and for those who haven’t been to the theater before,” Jones said. “I don’t want to be too dramatic, but they struck gold. The tone of it really works. There’s something about the stereotypical, cheesy musical theater energy that really fits with these young kids [elders Price and Cunningham].”