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20 insider revelations as 'The Book of Mormon' returns to Utah

Published July 31, 2017 8:48 pm

Stage • Insiders offer a local take on the second tour run of "Book of Mormon."
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

There's no place in the world like Salt Lake City for watching the foul-mouthed, sweet-and-sour musical "The Book of Mormon." After all, Utah audiences get all the jokes from living in "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," a magical place "with waterfalls and unicorns flying" that serves as the plot's metaphor.

We know the story, of course, about a mismatched pair of naive young LDS missionaries, whose faith-promoting stories are tested when they are sent to a rough, warlord-controlled village in Uganda.

The musical, created by "South Park" provocateurs Trey Parker and Matt Stone, with "Avenue Q" and "Frozen" composer Robert Lopez, won a covered wagon's worth of Tony Awards in 2011, including Best Musical and Best Set Design. LDS Church founder Joseph Smith even received a shout-out from Parker during the award ceremony: "You did it, Joseph, you got the Tony!"

With the tour's first run in 2015, the musical drew a self-selection of local theatergoers in what might be considered a theatrical holy war. This second Salt Lake City tour offers a golden opportunity to create an insider's guide, inspired by the culture that's woven through our town's temple-view streets.

1. Notice University of Utah alumnus Jaron Barney's talented feet — he's one of the missionaries in the ensemble whose taps have been miked. Barney, raised in an LDS family in Syracuse, started taking tap lessons in his freshman year at Brigham Young University and continued studying after he transferred to the U., according to Devin Rey Barney, his younger brother, a senior in the U.'s Acting Training Program.

2. Barney is thought to be the first-ever veteran of Salt Lake City's own annual musical satire, "Saturday's Voyeur," to be cast in the touring Broadway musical. He was in the 2014 "Voyeur" cast at Salt Lake Acting Company, while his younger brother was in "Voyeur" last year. Jaron "is very smart, he can sing and he can act," says "Voyeur" director Cynthia Fleming, who dreams of having both Barneys in a future "Voyeur" cast.

3. "He's so great — just a good dude," said actor Gabe Gibbs, who plays the lead role of Elder Price. Barney joined the tour in June in San Jose, Calif. Before the show's opening, the musical's promoters denied an interview request with Barney.

4. Theatergoers might consider eating at Crown Burger before the show, as the locally owned burger chain's sign is featured as part of the Salt Lake City skyline in the musical's set. Co-owner Dean Maroudas, at the 377 E. 200 South location, said they've received pictures from friends and Utah natives who have seen the touring musical across the country. But he doesn't know if they've received any business from the visual mention — so Utahns should see what happens when they stop by and say that "Book of Mormon" sent them.

5. Another insider activity would be to visit Temple Square with the "sweet sister missionaries" before the show. Ask lots of questions, and then actually listen to their answers, suggests Alexis Baigue, who has played a singing, dancing gay missionary for 15 summers in "Voyeur."

6. Speaking of sister missionaries, you won't see any onstage in the musical. That sisters have been written out of the missionary story is the subject of Holly Welker's essay in the 2016 book she co-edited, "Singing and Dancing to 'The Book of Mormon': Critical Essays on the Broadway Musical." "The Book of Nabulungi: Stand Next to Him and Watch (Or Mostly Him)" is her essay's clever wordplay off the musical's song "You and Me (But Mostly Me)."

7. The musical was inspired by research trips to Salt Lake City and other Mormon history sites. "We just went out to lunch and dinner at restaurants downtown and asked the employees if they knew anybody who had been on a mission. Honestly, almost all of them had been," says Stone in the annotated Broadway script, with its cheeky subtitle: "The Testament of a Broadway Musical."

8. Speaking of research trips, it's an urban legend at Salt Lake Acting Company that Parker and Stone attended a "Voyeur" show in the mid-2000s. But a search of ticket receipts doesn't confirm that story.

9. The musical's exposition revolves around two pageant scenes, a homage to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' annual Hill Cumorah Pageant, which creators visited in 2009. "The five notes that repeat in the phrase 'I am a Mormon' (in the 'I Believe' number) are the five notes, composed by Crawford Gates, that begin the opening 'Trumpet Fanfare' for the Hill Cumorah Pageant," writes Gerald S. Argetsinger in an essay in the "Singing and Dancing" collection. He's a retired theater professor who directed the pageant in the 1990s, while his wife, Gail, was a longtime costume designer for the show.

10. Then-LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley asked Gail Argetsinger in 1988 to design a less historical, more colorful, costume for Joseph Smith so his character didn't get lost in a parade of prophets. And that version, a blue cutaway coat with tan pants, inspired veteran Broadway costume designer Ann Roth's look for the musical's "All-American Prophet."

11. Argetsinger was one of the hosts who showed the touring cast around church history sites in 2013. Actors were surprised to learn that LDS missionaries were volunteers who paid their own expenses. "All of a sudden these caricature characters that we play onstage suddenly had a depth," said Mark Evans, who played Elder Price, in an interview with a Toronto journalist. "They became real people."

12. Speaking of costumes, "Jesus always looked like Cheryl Tiegs to me," said Roth in a 2011 Playbill interview about her design inspirations. She placed lights under Jesus' costume so the character would glow.

13. "The set is as witty as the writing and the production itself," says Keven Myhre, the former co-executive producer of Salt Lake Acting Company, now operation director at the University of Utah's Kingsbury Hall, in praising Scott Pask's Tony Award-winning set. Utah skies are blue and crisp, with no inversion and no graffiti, in contrast to the grittiness of Uganda scenes. "The skyline of Salt Lake City is a very wholesome representation, a very sanitized, clean, Disneyfied version of Salt Lake City."

14. In a Playbill interview, Pask said he came by his respect for Mormon culture and iconography from growing up in Arizona. The show's illuminated stained-glass proscenium frame — topped by a gilded, rotating statue of the Angel Moroni — was inspired by LDS temple architecture. The frame was intended to serve as a view finder for the action and to set up the show's pageant scenes. Scrims and architectural panels were combined with "an inspirational greeting-card-style sunrise" to create an imagined vision of Mormon heaven, the set designer said.

15. Speaking of gleaming, the Salt Lake Temple is a prominent element in the set. Its metal-laminated surface coated in "sparkle-filled enamel," then lit to create a halo effect around the building, Pask said.

16. Many Mormon theatergoers have been impressed at how much the satirical musical gets right. The few tone-deaf references, such as when mission leaders say "Praise Christ" at the news of missionary baptisms, fell with a dull thud to Utahns on opening night in 2015. "You wonder if [the creators] liked the weirdness of the way it sounds and kept it anyway," Baigue says.

17. The entrance of dancing Starbucks coffee cups in the big production number "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" brings down the house in Salt Lake City. But it didn't earn as many laughs in Las Vegas, says John Hatch, an editor at Signature Books who saw the show in both places.

18. The loose-fitting red devil costumes in that number were designed to make the missionaries look like lost boys. "I made them very weird with longer arms and feet that curled upwards," Roth told Playbill. "At the same time, the actors had to get out of the devil jammies and into their Mormon shirt, tie and pants — which were underneath the costumes — in less than 10 or 15 seconds."

19. Last year, the LDS Church updated its ad in the musical's program, instead of the three "I Am a Mormon" ads featured in the Broadway opening and for the first Utah run. Now the copy reads: "Our version is sliiiightly different," above a photo of the cover of The Book of Mormon, says Eric Hawkins, director of media relations for the LDS Church. He wasn't aware of any organized missionary efforts planned outside downtown's Eccles Theater.

20. "We say the words 'Salt Lake City' about 1,000 times, and every time we say it, it's a just a little bit buzzier when we are in that town," says Gibbs, who understudied the Elder Price role in Salt Lake City in the 2015 run before he took over the part on Broadway. In an ironic twist, promoters stipulated that religion was off-topic before scheduling a phone interview with Gibbs, in which the actor offered that he was raised as a nondenominational Christian, a faith he still practices.



'I Believe' in 'Sal Tlay Ka Siti'

The Tony Award-winning 2011 musical "The Book of Mormon," penned by "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone with Oscar-winning composer Robert Lopez ("Avenue Q" and "Frozen"), plays in Salt Lake City's new downtown roadhouse.

Where • Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main St., Salt Lake City

When • Opens Tuesday, Aug. 1, and plays at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, through Aug. 20

Lottery • Sign up at the theater box office for a ticket lottery 2 ½ hours before a performance; only one entry per person. Two hours before curtain, names will be drawn at random and winners can buy tickets for $25.

Also • Captioned performance at 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12 (theatergoers should select seats in Orchestra Right on the main floor)

Tickets • $35-$180 (plus ticket fees of $12-$13 per tickets), with best availability toward the end of the run; artsaltlake.org or 801-355-2787

For local satire: 'One Night in Salt Lake City'

Salt Lake Acting Company's annual musical satire, "Saturday's Voyeur," this year conveys its blunt force in its title "The S—- Show," including songs such as "The Russian Connection" and "American Lie."

When • 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, with 1 and 6 p.m. performances on Sundays, extended two weeks through Sept. 10

Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $45-$55 (group discounts for 10 or more); 801-363-7522; cabaret seating available; theatergoers are invited to bring their own alcohol and picnic food

More info • saltlakeactingcompany.org






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