Hit musical ‘Book of Mormon’ opens Broadway series at Saenger

Parodying organized religion in any artistic form is always a risky undertaking. No visual presentation or written work will rile the faithful more than something they perceive as mocking what they believe in, as countless examples over the years have proven. So, when the creators of the hit Broadway musical, “The Book of Mormon,” offered up a satire on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (otherwise known as the Mormon or LDS Church), they were warned by some of their colleagues that they might be asking for trouble. Protests, picketing and boycotts were envisioned.

However, while not openly endorsing this musical spoof of their church, the LDS hierarchy has termed its level of acceptance of it as “measured.”

In essence, they’re being good sports about it. They’re even taking advantage of all the publicity with clever ads in the show’s playbill that say, “Read the book. It’s always better.”

“The Book of Mormon” kicks off the 2013-14 Broadway in New Orleans series on Tuesday in the newly restored Saenger Theater.

The multi-award-winning musical, which runs through Oct. 27, will be the first full-scale theatrical production in the Saenger since being flooded by Hurricane Katrina eight years ago.

For those unfamiliar with the subject of the musical’s title, the Book of Mormon is part of the Holy Bible in the LDS Church.

It was written in similar fashion to the Bible by Joseph Smith in the late 1820s, with the help of a set of gold plates he is said to have found buried on a hill in upstate New York.

The book provided the foundation for the LDS Church that Smith started with a handful of adherents in 1830, and which now boasts about 15 million followers worldwide.

The book, music and lyrics for “The Book of Mormon” were written and scored by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, creators of the animated TV comedy, “South Park.” The story centers on two young Mormon missionaries, Elders Kevin Price and Arnold Cunningham, who are sent to convert the natives of a remote village in the East African nation of Uganda.

Their efforts are opposed by a local warlord and, initially, by the villagers, who are more worried about where their next meal is coming from than they are about matters of faith.

The young men’s naïvete about local customs touches off incidents and situations that are both humorous and satirical as they try to share “The Book of Mormon” with the locals. About two dozen musical numbers liven up the action.

Christopher John O’Neill, who performs and sings the role of Elder Cunningham, describes his character as “a big, lovable, dorky nerd who has this aura of ADHD about him.

All he wants is to have a best friend and he looks up to Elder Price, whom he gets paired with. This is the equivalent of winning the lottery for him.”

O’Neill, who joined the show’s current tour in December, also noted that his character is almost completely unprepared for the mission’s objective, never having read “The Book of Mormon.”

However, O’Neill added, “He has a good imagination. He’s able to throw in certain things like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ and he kind of creates his own version through his nerdy intelligence.

“This makes Arnold one of the funniest characters in the show,” O’Neill said. “I’m having the time of my life in this role. I get to run around on stage for two and a half hours, acting like an idiot and hopefully making people laugh.”

Commenting on the show’s religious implications, O’Neill said, “The Mormon religion is just kind of a jumping-off point. As you get more into the show, the fact that they’re Mormons becomes less and less important.

“This show is so filled with amazing jokes throughout,” O’Neill said. “Once the lights go down and the action starts, the audience is in for a ride. There’s no slow build. It starts like you’re shot out of a cannon and it stays that way until the end of the show.”

“The Book of Mormon”

WHEN: Oct. 15-27. Show times vary.

WHERE: Saenger Theatre, 1111 Canal St., New Orleans

TICKETS: $35.25-$108.95. Group discounts available.

INFO: www.ticketmaster.com or (800) 982-2787