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Thursday, January 24, 2013 / 8:00 AM

Talking to Chris O’Neill, AKA The Book of Mormon’s New Elder Cunningham

Talking to Chris O’Neill, AKA The Book of Mormon’s New Elder Cunningham

Courtesy of the Fox Theatre

 

Hot on the heels of its remarkable harvest of Tony Awards, The Book of Mormon comes to Fox Theatre in its first touring run. This unlikeliest of smash Broadway success stories is the brainchild of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Robert Lopez, writer of the superb Avenue Q, which came to the Fox in 2010. The Book of Mormon tells the story of a pair of Mormon missionaries, Elders Kevin Price and Arnold Cunningham, assigned to Uganda for their two-year mission. Kevin is gung-ho, devout, and resentful that his prayers have not sent him to mission in Orlando, while Arnold is overweight, insecure, and given to peppering his version of Mormonism with hobbits and Star Wars tidbits.

In the Broadway production, the role was pioneered by Josh Gad (whose signature was this insane laugh). For the Broadway touring production, Chris O'Neill, who is primarily a comedian and improv actor, steps into Elder Cunningham's shiny Florsheim shoes. O'Neill has toured internationally with his sketch comedy duo The Chris and Paul Show, won Best Actor in a Comedy (New York Television Festival), amd was nominated as Best Newcomer 2011 at the Montreal Sketch Festival & Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He spoke with Look-Listen's theater critic, Devin C. Baker, by email in advance of his appearance on stage at the Fox this February.

What is it like to work on this Broadway show? Does your background in improv give you an edge?

Working on this show is obviously a dream come true. I've always been a huge fan of South Park and all of their other projects, so being a part of one of their biggest projects is amazing and humbling. I think having a background in improv is always helpful in any show you do. This script is amazing, so my improv background just helps me feed off the audience, and know when to hold certain moments, etc.

Many touring versions of Broadway shows go through some tweaks/re-working—even to the point of new songs or entirely new stagings.  Any of that with The Book of Mormon that we'll see at The Fox, or is this a pretty faithful transfer of the Broadway original?

I'd definitely say that this is a very faithful transfer of the Broadway original. I think each cast brings their own energy to the show, but I'd say across the board, people leave any company of this show loving it!

Did Parker/Stone/Lopez have any direct involvement in the development of the touring production?

They have. Mark Evans [who plays Elder Price] and I joined the cast well into the run, so there was an intimidation factor for myself, joining an already well-oiled machine. But we were so lucky to be able to work one on one with the guys before we went on. It's amazing to see how much they’re still involved. Coming from a strictly comedy background, It's completely surreal being directed by guys who I look up to so much.

Despite all the press coverage and attention, what's key to The Book of Mormon that perhaps hasn't been put into the public awareness?

I just think that people need to understand that this show has a deeper meaning than what they might assume. It’s not so much a show about teasing Mormons as it is about faith and coming together. Every night, by the end of the show, there's this amazingly happy, positive energy that gives me chills.

Final question: What's your take on the NHL lockout? Now that hockey's back, will you go ahead and buy an abbreviated season ticket package, or make them earn your money for next season.

I'll tell ya what. I’m SO excited that this lockout it over. I live in NYC, so I'm a huge Rangers fan! I have my phone set up to receive every update of every game, score, etc. So when the games are happening, it looks like I'm super popular because my phone is constantly buzzing.

The Book of Mormon runs February 19 through March 3. Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 1 & 6 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $39 to $100, with an eight-ticket limit. Fox Theatre, 527 N. Grand, 314-534-1111, fabulousfox.com.

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