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updated: 12/7/2012 3:25 PM

'Book of Mormon' aims for long Chicago run

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  • Andrew Rannells played Elder Price, center, with the original 2011 Broadway company of "The Book of Mormon." The smash-hit Broadway musical by the creators of "South Park" and a composer of "Avenue Q" is set to play a six-month engagement at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre.

      Andrew Rannells played Elder Price, center, with the original 2011 Broadway company of "The Book of Mormon." The smash-hit Broadway musical by the creators of "South Park" and a composer of "Avenue Q" is set to play a six-month engagement at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre.
    Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble Member James Vincent Meredith stars as Ugandan chief Mafala Hatimbi in "The Book of Mormon," which plays at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre beginning Tuesday, Dec. 11.

      Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble Member James Vincent Meredith stars as Ugandan chief Mafala Hatimbi in "The Book of Mormon," which plays at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre beginning Tuesday, Dec. 11.

  • Nic Rouleau stars as Elder Price in "The Book of Mormon," opening Tuesday, Dec. 11, at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre. Rouleau was standby to original "Book of Mormon" star Andrew Rannells ("The New Normal") and later took over the role full time.

      Nic Rouleau stars as Elder Price in "The Book of Mormon," opening Tuesday, Dec. 11, at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre. Rouleau was standby to original "Book of Mormon" star Andrew Rannells ("The New Normal") and later took over the role full time.

 
 

The smash hit 2011 musical comedy "The Book of Mormon" is one of the hottest tickets on Broadway. The raucous, award-winning adults-only show by "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker with "Avenue Q" co-creator Robert Lopez is sold out months in advance in New York.

Now hopes are high that "The Book of Mormon" will be Chicago's next long-running musical in the same way that previous Broadway hits like "Wicked" and "Jersey Boys" racked up multiyear runs in the Loop. For now, "The Book of Mormon" is only booked for a six-month run at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre from Tuesday, Dec. 11, to Sunday, June 2. But no doubt many are hoping that this second national tour of "The Book of Mormon" will stay around Chicago longer to boost the downtown economy.

Two of the stars of "The Book of Mormon" are particularly hoping for a long Chicago run. Nic Rouleau comes to Chicago after appearing in the Broadway company of "The Book of Mormon," while Chicago actor and Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble Member James Vincent Meredith is relishing his chance to appear in a big Broadway musical in his hometown (and to be able to take the CTA Green Line home every night).

Rouleau plays Elder Price, an idealistic 18-year-old missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who finds himself woefully unprepared alongside his dim mission companion, Elder Cunningham (Ben Platt), to proselytize in the African nation of Uganda. Rouleau joined the Broadway company of "Book of Mormon" as the standby for original star Andrew Rannells (now appearing on the NBC-TV sitcom "The New Normal") before taking over the role of Elder Price this past June. Now, Rouleau is heading up the show in Chicago.

"It's an incredible experience to be able to come here and to open a company. It's something I've wanted ever since I started with the show," Rouleau said, discounting the notion that coming to Chicago would be seen as a demotion. "It's obviously incredible to be performing on Broadway, but for me, I wanted the chance to start fresh with a new group of people and to do the full rehearsal process."

As Rouleau points out, he didn't really get to work as in-depth with the creators of "The Book of Mormon" during his time on Broadway. He also was pushed to stick to the template of Rannells' Tony Award-nominated performance rather than fully making the role his own.

"Trey and Matt and Bobby Lopez, as we call him, are the most smart, fascinating people. They wrote this incredible show and it's just amazing to sit and listen to them talk about it," said Rouleau, who also admits to growing up as a huge "South Park" fan. "It brought a whole new insight to the character for me, which was missing from before."

As for Meredith, performing in a musical comedy was a challenge, especially since he's established himself locally more as a serious actor in productions like "Othello" at Writers' Theatre and Steppenwolf's "The Crucible" and "Take Me Out" (and especially as Alderman Ross in the Starz TV drama "Boss").

"I've always been a little afraid of musicals," Meredith said. "I love to see them, but I've always fancied myself as more of a karaoke guy when it comes to singing."

Meredith's trepidations about auditioning for the role of village chief Mafala Hatimbi in "The Book of Mormon" fell away when he found himself continually cracking himself up with laughter as he read and reread the script.

Even though both the African and Mormon characters come in for some heavy lampooning when it comes to their often cringe-inducing ignorance, Meredith finds the show pretty "equal opportunity" for its potential to offend and provoke laughs, particularly with his scathing "Lion King"-style spoof song with lyrics that can't be printed in a family newspaper.

"There are a lot of wink-winks in there and some that come from the Africans themselves," Meredith said. "The story does not play favorites, and at the end you really find yourself rooting for these two elders in ways that you didn't even anticipate you'd feel when you first began watching. It's so funny that by the end, you forget how emotionally invested you are with these guys."

With a third North American company of "The Book of Mormon" in Chicago, audiences clamoring to see the show now have another option besides jam-packed Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Broadway, which seats only about 1,100 people.

During the New York rehearsals, Meredith remembers seeing the show on a Wednesday night during a Nor'easter storm with atrocious sleet and snow after Hurricane Sandy.

"We go into the theater, and of course every seat is taken," said Meredith, adding that he had to stand and watch the show from behind a row of 35 standing room ticketholders at the back of the theater. "It just shows how popular the show is in New York even on a rough night temperature- and weather-wise."

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