TORONTO - The stars of "The Book of Mormon" touring production say they've gained a new appreciation for the religion depicted in the smash show after visiting the town billed as the birthplace of the Latter Day Saint movement.
Mark Evans, who plays Mormon missionary Elder Price in the hit musical comedy that's now in Toronto, says during their March run in Rochester, N.Y., they took a trip to Palmyra. That's where Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the movement, published the Book of Mormon sacred text.
"It was amazing for us, I think, because it was an opportunity for us to really discover a lot more depth to the religion and to Mormons in general," he said Thursday, the day of the show's official opening at the Princess of Wales Theatre.
"And all of a sudden these caricature characters that we play onstage suddenly had a depth and we had a wealth of knowledge, and they became real people."
"There's more appreciation, too, once you know what you're really preaching onstage through comedy," said Christopher John O'Neill, who plays fellow missionary Elder Cunningham.
"And just to see how genuinely content and happy they are," added Evans. "They really are, no matter who you are or what you believe, they are just these serene, happy people.
"And I think that's the message of our show: No matter who you are, what you believe in, what your religious background is — if whatever you believe in makes you happy and makes life easier, then do it."
Mirvish Productions is presenting "The Book of Mormon" in the city through June 9 after sold-out runs in cities including Pittsburgh and Boston.
This is the first national tour of the highly anticipated show that features a book, music and lyrics by "South Park" masterminds Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and "Avenue Q" co-creator Robert Lopez. Parker also co-directs.
The edgy song-and-dance satire follows two naive, mismatched Mormon missionaries (Evans and O'Neill) as they try to share the book's scripture while visiting a Ugandan village ravaged by a brutal warlord.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken a neutral approach to the nine-time Tony Award winner with the statement: "The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ."
The church has also bought ads in the show's program.
Evans said the irreverent material doesn't pick on Mormons and is more about overall faith. And the creators are "fans of the religion" and have exhaustively researched it to make the story truthful.
"If anything, it celebrates Mormonism, because it's kind of showing that it's a good thing — if believing in the Book of Mormon makes your life better, then great," said Evans, 28, who hails from London.
"The Book of Mormon is basically just a jumping-off point, because as you get into the show you realize that Mormonism becomes less of a thing in the show and it's more about human interaction, faith," said O'Neill, 30, a Connecticut native.
O'Neill said they've even seen Mormons in the audience, braving the bawdy, expletive-laden material and wearing their signature missionary suits and nametags.
"I can't remember which city we were in but there was a Mormon family in the front row," said Evans, who has an extensive musical theatre background and has acted in film and TV.
"I was terrified. I was like, 'Oh, please stay through to the second act,' and they were their first on their feet at the end."
"I'm always worried they're going to punch me in the face but they always seem to like it," quipped O'Neill, who is making his professional theatre debut and has toured internationally with his sketch comedy duo The Chris and Paul Show.
Evans said his London family is planning to visit him in Toronto so they can see the show for the first time and go with him to the CN Tower and Niagara Falls.
O'Neill, meanwhile, is hoping to meet his Canadian comedy icons while here — members of the Kids in the Hall.
"I hope I don't know if they show up, because if they're there and I know, I'm going to throw up — I'm going to throw up everywhere," he said.
O'Neill has even tweeted at troupe member Scott Thompson, asking him to see the show.
Such a mission may prove impossible, though, seeing as the production is sold out and the only way to get tickets is through the daily lottery.
Even the stars felt privileged to get tickets during their audition process in New York.
"I think that was the coolest thing in the auditions, they were like 'Hey, you have tickets ... to see the show,' and I was like, 'Who cares if I get (the part) — I get to see it!'" said O'Neill.
"It didn't sink in that I was auditioning to be in the show. I was just like, 'I get to see the show, for free, and you guys can't even get tickets!'"
"If you want to get tickets, audition for the show," Evans added with a laugh.