News Column

'Book of Mormon' elders make for odd couple

August 31, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 31--Like the characters they portray, Mark Evans and Chris O'Neill exude missionary zeal in the pilgrimage they've undertaken as stars of the national tour of "The Book of Mormon."

"The show is uplifting because, however irreverent and hilarious, ultimately, it's celebrating faith," says Evans, who plays the straight-arrow, picture-perfect Elder Price. "It says that if believing something makes life better, easier, more fulfilling -- then good for you, and continue believing."

O'Neill, who plays schlubby Elder Cunningham, the congenital screw-up who partners with Elder Price on a mission to calamity-plagued Uganda, says, "The most shocking, amazing aspect is how much heart the show has. People come to the show knowing it will push limits -- which it does. But they walk away having experienced a real story with real heart, that makes you feel for the characters. Everything in the show is there for a purpose."

Evans and O'Neill assumed the leads in December during the tour's San Francisco run. Their different nationalities and performing backgrounds reflect the odd-couple teaming of their onstage roles.

Heart and truth

Evans, originally from North Wales, has lived in London for 10 years. He has played lead roles in a U.K. tour of "Oklahoma!," and in such West End productions as "Wicked" and "Ghost." Auditioning for "The Book of Mormon," he thought his prospects were with the London cast -- but the duo then starring in the U.S. tour were sent to London, and Evans and O'Neill were recruited to replace them.

"It's been exciting from the start," Evans says. "Not only sinking my teeth into this great role in a great show -- but as the only U.S. city I'd visited prior to this had been New York, every city I'm seeing on tour is a first time experience! Right now, in a period of a couple of months, I'm playing the four largest cities in Texas."

Evans sees points of similarity and difference between himself and his character.

"I connect with the character because, like him, I'm very hard-working, determined and focused. I'm also an optimist, if not quite as happy and positive as he is. Where we differ is that he has this strong commitment to a religion, whereas I'm not personally committed to any particular religion."

In Evans' view, Elder Price is not so much clueless in his response to the harsh realities of Uganda, as simply inexperienced.

"He's led this perfect Mormon life. If his mission had been to anywhere but Uganda, he would have continued being the perfect Mormon. But the extreme hardships and woes he confronts there create crisis. The character genuinely believes he can make a difference, change the entire human race. It may be borderline arrogant, but it's a genuine deep-down desire.

Evans has seen people walk out of some performances, a few who don't return for Act 2.

"To me, its like: More fool you! You paid a hell of a lot of money and, if you'd stayed to the end, you'd see that while some parts might be considered offensive, there is a real reason. It's part of the comedic style and viewpoint. Mostly, if anyone takes offense, it's in a funny way. Not so much 'I'm outraged they said that' as 'I can't believe they actually said that!'

"Of course, the show pushes buttons and boundaries. It's what the authors are known for. But the story line winds up so full of heart and truth. Everything in the show is based on passion."

During a performance in Rochester, early in the show, Evans noticed a family of Mormons in the front row.

"They were wearing, literally, what we're wearing on stage," he recalls. "I thought, 'Oh, dear Lord, let them not be offended, this will be the true test of what we were doing.' And that was one of the most sincere performances I've given because I was so focused on it just being about my character expressing his faith. And when we came out for bows at the end, they were the first ones on their feet."

Role of a lifetime

O'Neill, in contrast, comes to "The Book of Mormon" not from musical theater but from a decade touring comedy clubs and festivals, in tandem with Paul Valenti, as the Chris and Paul Show.

"The last musical I'd done was in 2000, when I was in high school," O'Neill recalls. "I did some in high school because friends were in them. And there were cute girls."

"So a couple years ago, I was performing my duo comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and one of the casting directors for 'Book of Mormon' saw it and, after the show, asked if I could sing and dance. I said, 'Of course, anything you want.' They asked me to come to New York and audition for the show. I thought they were crazy, but I just went to try for it -- excited to be asked, but never thinking I'd be offered anything. Having a comedy background, Matt and Trey were my idols. So just being able to tell people I was auditioning for this was a victory already. It took a while, but they kept calling me back. When they offered me this role in the tour, I just about had a heart attack. Everything about this has been a surprise."

It's also a bit of a change of character to become the show's wild and crazy Elder Cunningham, who makes things up and regularly runs out of control.

"In our comedy act, I usually played the straight man," O'Neill says. "When I would do improv, I loved taking on wacky, out of control characters. So playing this funny, crazy part -- someone called my character a 'goofball spastic little chipmunk' -- is a dream come true. It's such fun to play him, the opposite of Elder Price and all the others. Among all these perfect Mormon specimens, I'm playing the train wreck. He's really trying to fit in, to be a good friend and support to Elder Price. He's just not on par with the rest of them."

Like Evans, O'Neill credits Stone, Parker and Lopez.

"They're brilliant comedy writers and also big fans of musical theater," O'Neill says. "They really know how to structure one. This show starts at 100 miles an hour, it's like being shot out of a cannon. Basically, you just get out and do your job, feel out the audience as you go, have fun and they go with you."

O'Neill reports that audience response changes not so much city to city, as night to night.

"You might have a crowd that starts a bit more reserved. Then, once past the element of the language, they finally warm up. Other nights, we can tell we've got a crowd who are super fans of 'South Park,' and as soon as the music starts, they're screaming. That's the great thing about theater and what keeps all of us on our toes.

"When we played Rochester, which is where Mormonism began, I was hoping they would like it. The audiences there went crazy for the show -- some of the best we've had the entire tour. At one show, we had, like, this 90-year-old couple. I thought, 'Well, they'll be outraged by it.' And at the end, they were dancing around having the time of their lives."

O'Neill is in no hurry to return to his comedy act and the club scene.

"Man, I am having the time of my life! I have nothing in the works that would take me away from this. Where would I go from here? This is the most amazing part and show, and I'm seeing the country. That's a pretty sweet gig. I remember working with my comedy partner and trying to get anyone to come see us. We'd have 10 people in the audience and think: 'Wow! Success!' Now it's 'We're sold out' -- all the time! It's ridiculous. I'm still pinching myself."

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