On the stage, a newborn version of an old fashioned medium unfolds, and is consistently playing to impressed evangelized and non-believing audience members alike. This is The Book of Mormon, a musical comedy (an underserved genre, really) that brings us the story of two young Mormon missionaries who travel to Africa to preach their word. Penned by “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, with music handled by Robert Lopez, famous for his work on the wry Avenue Q, the play quickly became a sensation when it debuted in 2011, and took home Tonys for best musical, best original score and more.
There has been a touring production of The Book of Mormon since 2012, and a few cast members have been on board for the entirety of that run, but just as many have stepped on board at various points in the six years that have passed, breathing new energy into the well-loved show. Among those are Andy Jones. Jones joined the production just several months ago to assume the role of Elder McKinley, the head of the missionaries in Uganda, who is “struggling with a smile to deliver on this nigh on impossible task of converting everyone in Africa,” the actor described. On the heels of tenures on Broadway with Cats and touring with Cinderella, Jones has come to approach his work altruistically. “It's special to bring this kind of Broadway experience into someone's backyard, it's nice to be attached to that,” he said over the phone during a stopover in Sacramento, where the show was running for about a week before continuing eastward, eventually stopping in Albuquerque.
Jones recalled his first time seeing the play, with the original company in New York. He sat in the back of the house and “laughed my ass off,” as he described—but he was actually surprised to find that the story wasn't just crass asides and triumphant blasphemy. “I was touched by how full of heart the show was, I never expected that to be a part of it.”
In fact, Jones points to that element as one of the primary reasons that the show has had such long-running success. Yes, the sardonic dark hymns and absurd bits never cease to delight, but the show actually, unexpectedly for many, doesn't approach the story with malice. It is the story of struggling to get things right, and of grappling with faith. “It's about the human need for a belief system, and understanding and connection,” Jones summarized.
The character of Elder McKinley has his own struggles that Jones finds instructive. “There are a lot of people who really relate to him, because over the course of the play, he learns that covering up your feels is not super productive. That says something about a lot of us—our desire to have only positive emotions and experiences, our desires to avoid the negative ones.” The show offers such small beads of wisdom on the regular, in fact, “celebrating uncertainty and faith,” Jones said, and even underlining the question of “Is uncertainty OK?” That particular question, for an actor going job-to-job, has had resonance for Jones, and he finds that many people find their own point of connection to the story. In fact—that ability to grapple with heavy topics with such unalloyed joy, according to Jones, is what has made the show so successful.
“It's not about making fun of a group of people who see the world differently than we do,” he said. “That's a doorway in, but I think that people walk away with much more than that.” The music itself lends shape to these ideas, adding clever jokes and unexpected, earnest—even truehearted—
The unending hype around the show and its association with “South Park,” have allowed the messaging to spread to an interesting cross section of fans. Because of the cast's dedication to the story, they bring new energy to each of their eight weekly shows. For his part, Jones practices yoga and meditation, which, on stage and off, help him remain in the moment. He and points out that the amped up comedy of the show creates a distinct call and response between the cast and the audience—where you might hold for a laugh, or give a certain joke more gas, depends on the house on any given night. “There's no secret to it, but knowing that the people who are seeing the show that night have never seen it before is a good motivation to stay present … and that relationship to the audience, it is so constant,” he explained.
Yet what Jones took away from his own experience of the play, all those years ago before he ever assumed the role of Elder McKinley, is that there aren't easy answers, in theater or in life. “In the last couple of years I've worked on reframing how I see an audience responding to a show,” he said. “Rather than giving the audience a specific statement on what their experience was, I think that our job is to ask the question, and for them to create their own answer.”
Those myriad questions will be asked at eight different performances of The Book of Mormon at Popejoy Hall, between Tuesday, April 10 and Sunday, April 15. Tickets start at around $50 and can be found online at popejoypresents.com.