'The Book of Mormon' still showing its heart

ATLANTA -- In the seven years since "The Book of Mormon" stampeded Broadway with its artful mix of the sardonic skewering of Mormon beliefs and well-intentioned sweetness, dozens of musicals have floundered.

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Melissa Ruggieri
, Cox Newspapers

ATLANTA -- In the seven years since "The Book of Mormon" stampeded Broadway with its artful mix of the sardonic skewering of Mormon beliefs and well-intentioned sweetness, dozens of musicals have floundered.

But the script and songs from "South Park" inventors Trey Parker and Matt Stone and "Avenue Q" alum Robert Lopez (now also the youngest person to score an EGOT -- Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony awards) have maintained their freshness and widespread appeal, telling the story of two young Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda who quickly realize that life in Africa isn't quite the same as in Salt Lake City.

"The Book of Mormon" is still regularly grossing more than $1 million a week at its New York home, as per the Broadway League, while a second national tour has circled the country since 2013.

This week, the ribald musical with nine Tony Awards on its resume returns to the Fox Theatre for the third time since 2014 and plays through Sunday.

The last time the show visited the Fox, Kevin Clay, a 25-year-old with a BFA in musical theater from Penn State University, was employed as the understudy for Elder Price, the earnest missionary who is eager to earn an assignment in ... Orlando.

Now, Clay is the full-time Elder Price. Last week, he took some time during the show's run in Knoxville, Tennessee, to discuss the continued allure of "The Book of Mormon" and his excitement about revisiting Atlanta.

Q: In going from understudy to standby to inhabiting the role, how do you feel you've evolved with the character?

A: Now, especially, with getting to play the character every night, naturally things change here and there. Every couple of weeks, you find a new way of saying something one night that you had never thought of doing before. When you're a standby and watching someone else in the role, you're watching them explore the character and then trying to do your own thing.

There are certain things I need to do to uphold this character, but I want to bring my own thing to it. There is a really nice collaborative process between our directors and performers. (The directors will) come in and if we're doing something off track, they'll reel us back in. It's been a pretty rewarding experience so far.

Q: Did you watch any video of (Tony-nominated) Andrew Rannells' performance as Elder Price?

A: The only actual video I saw of Andrew was (the performance) at the (2011) Tonys. But I was very familiar with the soundtrack before I joined the show, so I know what he would do vocally on the songs. One of the most frequent comments I get from people is that I remind them of Andrew.

Q: I would guess that's a good thing.

A: I think it's great -- especially if I could have his career!

Q: The show has been around for seven years, but are you still finding audience members who might be a little offended at the content or don't quite know what they're coming to see?

A: Every once in a while, we'll get some people who haven't taken to it or leave in the middle, and I'm always sad about it and want to scream out, "Just wait!" But now that we've been around for a while, people who are making the effort to go out and see us at least know something about the show.

Q: It's quite a feat that the Broadway version is still playing to 100-plus percent (of nightly audiences). Why do you think the show manages to hold such appeal?

A: There's, of course, the comedy and outlandish nature of the show, and people are always talking about that and how different something like that is on Broadway. But something that has made it really firmly rooted, once people get into the show, it really has a strong, positive message about faith and ideas about belief and religion.

At the end of the day, sort of like what (Parker and Stone) do on ("South Park"), they're not trying to hurt anyone; they're picking a very specific subject matter and using that to make the audience members examine religion in their own lives.

Q: You were the understudy the last time the show played the Fox; do you remember anything about that Atlanta visit?

A: That is what I'm most excited about -- coming back there. I love that theater. Every time we go to other theaters that sort of try to have a theme, I always end up describing the Fox in Atlanta, sort of like an outdoor Moroccan market. Last time we were there, it was winter and it was bitterly cold, and I'm excited to be there even if it's the opposite of having to wear four coats!



"The Book of Mormon"

7:30 p.m. through Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. $34-$139. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org.

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