Sketch comic Christopher John O’Neill came into the smash hit musical The Book of Mormon through such an unconventional route, he still can’t believe it’s for real.
O’Neill, part of a two-man comedy duo originally from Stamford, Conn., now plays the insecure, overweight, incredibly nerdy Elder Cunningham in the first national tour of the musical, which is coming to PlayhouseSquare’s Palace Theatre Tuesday through July 7. The musical, conceived by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone as well as Robert Lopez of Avenue Q fame, won nine 2011 Tony Awards.
Still playing on Broadway, the musical follows two naïve young Mormon missionaries as they attempt to share the Book of Mormon with villagers in northern Uganda who are stricken by war, poverty and AIDS.
O’Neill plays the yang to Mark Evans’ yin as Elder Price — a confident, focused, all-American quarterback type. Cunningham thinks Price is the coolest, and is thrilled when they’re paired up as a missionary team to Africa.
Cunningham, who has a problem with lying, has never read the Book of Mormon. He decides to chuck it and fabricate his own imaginative stories for the Ugandans.
“So far it’s like a dream role to play. You get to play this crazy character … He’s such a lovable guy but he’s such a dork,” O’Neill said.
The tour has been running since last July, with O’Neill and co-star Evans coming on board in December. In a stroke of unexpected luck, O’Neill was discovered by a Book of Mormon casting director last summer while he was performing his comedy routine at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
O’Neill, who was asked to audition for the part of Elder Cunningham, is now making his professional debut in The Book of Mormon. What caught the casting director’s attention? O’Neill said he and longtime comedy partner Paul Valenti are two stocky guys whose routine includes a lot of taxing physical comedy, much like The Book of Mormon does.
“It’s like a marathon. There’s just a lot of running around. It takes a lot out of you,” O’Neill said of the musical.
His reaction to being asked to audition for a Broadway musical?
“I started laughing. I thought it was hilarious,” he said. “I went into the audition process totally in disbelief and I think that helped me out. I didn’t have any pressure on me because it was too surreal, and I just didn’t think it was going to happen.”
The relaxed, fun-loving audition worked out for O’Neill, 38, who has been doing comedy for 15 years and toiled to establish himself in New York. A love of performing has always been what’s driven him.
“It was just, ‘appreciate everything you get,’ ” he said. “I just take this show day to day. I’m not looking towards the future.’’
Elder Cunningham continually puts his foot in his mouth and allows his imagination to take over. Yet the audience sees him grow.
“He’s a mess with a heart of gold,” O’Neill said. “He stumbles throughout the show and by the end of the show, you’re rootin’ for him.”
O’Neill, who did musical theater in high school, is now singing a demanding high tenor part.
“Both Price and Cunningham are singing throughout at the top of their lungs, and way up there, and it doesn’t come down,” explained the actor.
He and Evans study weekly via Skype with vocal coach Liz Caplan, a New York icon.
“She’s the reason my voice is surviving this whole thing,” he said. “The hardest part is trying to preserve your voice and make sure you get stronger and stronger without blowing it out.”
The comedian appreciates the The Book of Mormon’s famously profane humor but said that’s not what the show’s all about. The missionary element of the story is just a jumping-off point, and midway through the show, it’s irrelevant that the characters are Mormon.
“It’s more about faith in general,” O’Neill said.
He recommends that audiences approach the show with open minds: “It really is about being a good person … I think the most surprising thing about the show is how heartfelt it is. It has such a positive message. The idea of the show isn’t to offend people or pick on anyone or try to say as many bad words as you can to shock anyone.’’
Audiences can expect a smart show with a solid musical theater structure.
“Matt Stone and Trey Parker, they love musical theater, and they know the craft of it. They know how to write a musical, which is the most surprising, cool thing about it,” O’Neill said.
Although the story presents struggles that African nations deal with today concerning AIDS and the violence of warlords, The Book of Mormon isn’t trying to be preachy or political, the actor stressed.
“The only message they really want to get across is like a pro-faith thing. You can believe in something, but if it makes you happy and makes you a good person, then that’s what you should do.”
The cultural disconnect between the glass-is-half-full Mormons and the Ugandans — who are living a hellish life — is key to the story.
“They [the Ugandans] want to believe in something great. They need faith because their life is stricken with a lot of bad things,” O’Neill said.
Six months into the tour, the actor is still pinching himself about co-starring in this smash Broadway hit.
“It’s still surreal. I’m just having a great time and I don’t think it’s ever gonna sink in,” he said.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.