Cody Jamison Strand was agog when he earned a spot in the cast of "The Book of Mormon."
And then, the nerves crept in.
The 24-year-old realized he'd struck comic gold with the role of Elder Arnold Cunningham — whom he describes as happy, over-excited and a tad crazy — but was worried about how his father, a pastor, would react.
So Strand first broke the news to his mother, who conducted some investigation into the religious-satire musical and then eased her husband into it. She started with the more "politically correct" songs, he said, and then segued to the more risque numbers.
Now, nearly two years have passed, and the South Dakota resident has lost track of the number of times his parents have shown their support by attending — and loving — the show.
"I do remember saying to them , 'No matter what happens, you have to stay to the end,'" Strand recounted. "Because by the end of the show, it has such a pro-faith message — that it doesn't matter what you believe or do as long as we all work together to make this our paradise planet — that you can't help but love it."
"The Book of Mormon" was created over a seven-year period by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the minds behind "South Park," and Robert Lopez, co-composer of "Avenue Q." The musical, which has nine Tony Awards, a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album and an almost cult-like following, , is coming to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts between May 13 and 25. The venue will conduct a lottery for a limited number of $25 tickets, two-and-a-half hours prior to each show.
Center President Terry Dwyer, an equally ardent musical theater and "South Park" fan, called the work "bold" and "original."
"How they are able to tackle such an eclectic range of topics, including some that are great 'taboos' for many, with such consistent sincerity and hilarity, is simply astounding," he said. "I think the musical and TV show offer up some of the funniest, most irreverent material I have ever seen."
Learning about the faith
The story follows two young Mormons from the LDS Church Missionary Training Centre — Elder Kevin Price and Elder Cunningham — who travel to a remote northern Ugandan village whose population is being threatened by a despotic warlord. Although gung-ho about sharing the Book of Mormon, the pair struggle to connect with and convert the locals since they are mired in war, famine, poverty and AIDS.
Denée Benton, who plays Nabulungi, the daughter of a community leader, is part of the cast coming to Orange County.
Originally from Orlando, Florida, she is a senior in Carnegie Mellon University's undergraduate musical theater program. After completing her first semester on campus, Benton joined the "Book of Mormon" company for a month in San Francisco and 16-week run in Los Angeles, and will receive credit for participating in the second national run. One of her graduation requirements was to maintain a four-month journal, to be evaluated by her professor.
"It's so well written — there has not been a show like it," the 22-year-old said. "Each song is like an exciting treat because you've never heard anything like it before. As a musical nerd, you get excited about those things, but it's enjoyable even if you're not."
Benton, who memorized all the songs' lyrics as soon as the musical came out in 2011, believes that the creative crew didn't hold back with "The Book of Mormon." Although lines have been crossed, the intention was not to be mocking. Parker, Stone and Lopez have cleverly used satire, outlandish comedy and a shock factor to communicate circumstances that are true.
Thinking back to his first time viewing "The Book of Mormon," he remembered befriending an elderly couple seated beside him in the Eugene O'Neill Theater in New York. They decided to check back in with each other once the performance ended.
Instead, shaking with mirth, Strand and the woman clutched hands and said, "I can't believe they just did that" repeatedly throughout the production.
"I loved it," he said. "I thought it was the funniest thing I'd ever seen. The music is catchy. The jokes are brilliant. The show is really quite perfect."