Arts & Entertainment

‘Book of Mormon’ vet returns to Indy to play Elder Cunningham

December 14, 2018

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Conner Peirson as Elder Cunningham – Courtesy of Juietta Cervantes. Used with permission.

Some may debate that it is “The Best Musical of this Century,” which is a quote from former New York Times chief theatre critic Ben Brantley; however, having seen “The Book of Mormon,” at least three times myself, it is high on my list. The winner of nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, the National Tour presented by Broadway in Indianapolis will open the show Monday Dec. 18 and play through Dec. 23 at Clowes Memorial Hall on the campus of Butler University.

Written by “South Park’s” Trey Parker and Matt Stone and “Frozen’s” Robert Lopez, “Mormon” is hilarious, irreverent and a sweet send-up of religion and cultural differences, but in the end, just your classic musical theatre. For the uninitiated, the story follows the adventures of two very different young Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints missionaries, who are paired together and sent to Uganda to perform their two-year mission. One is the eager, straight arrow Elder Price and the other is nerdy Elder Cunningham, who is a pathological liar. While the unlikely pair seeks to sign up new members and save souls, the locals are more focused on poverty, famine, AIDS and a brutal warlord who oppresses them, rather than religion. While Elder Price struggles with his doubts and expectations, Elder Cunningham battles with his inability to remember the scripture and his propensity for lying. In the end, it remains to be seen if the odd couple succeeds in their uphill mission.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak by phone with actor Conner Peirson, who plays Elder Arnold Cunningham. He was in Lincoln, Nebraska, where the show is playing at the Lied Center for the Performing Arts until Sunday prior to its Indianapolis engagement. As it turns out, I had seen Peirson in the show previously when it last played in Indy at the Murat a few years back. Peirson said he has been with the company for four years. The first year was on Broadway as a standby and the last three on tour. He took over the role of Cunningham two years ago.

Kim Exum & Conner Peirson – Courtesy of Julietta Cervantes. Used with permission.

A Tacoma, Washington native, Peirson, whose parents were both actors, says that prior to entering the theatre profession, his goal was to be a Disney animator, but once the studio went digital, that dream ended. “I had planned my whole life around this job and it literally no longer existed. So, what do I do now? I am really lucky this worked out because I don’t have any tangible, real skills. I am really good at the arts, but that is pretty much it,” laughed the actor, who landed his first professional job playing Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors” soon after his graduation from Northwestern Washington University, where he studied theatre.

Peirson says he relishes the role of Cunningham. “He is someone who is absolutely trying his best, but just doesn’t quite have the social skills. It has been really interesting. The longer I play him, the more I have to accept that I just need to be more of myself because he and I are very similar. The difference between us, however, it that I have a general stillness about me. I am quirky, but in a subdued, quiet way. Cunningham is very expressive with his body and kind of flails around a bit, so that was a big departure for me. One of my personal qualities is I tend to disappear into the wall a little bit, but this has been really good to help me stretch.”

I asked Peirson why the show, which opened on Broadway in 2011, had such staying power, to which he replied, “The script is so much fun and smart. It’s brilliantly written and it has all these modern qualities to it. The humor is just so fast-paced, but it is in the structure of classic musicals that people love. It has all the aspects and the flow you would expect of the great MGM musicals, with just a lot of modernizing. The humor is so fast-paced that a lot of time people have to come back and they ask ‘Is this joke new? I definitely didn’t hear it last time.’ Every time people come back, they always seem to find something they hadn’t noticed before.”

“What about its subject matter? Is it still relevant?” I asked Peirson. “Yes, very much so. For one, it is still being talked about, which is so amazing. A lot of people talk about it because something was so uncomfortable to them in the show, but one of the great things about discomfort in the theatre is it invites conversation, which needs to be had for the door to be opened. It stays relevant because it can shuffle people just enough to cause discomfort to begin that needed conversation, which is a really great thing,” exclaimed Peirson.

Regarding the show’s larger themes, Peirson said, “I feel the show is very pro-faith and pro-friendship. Sometimes, when it comes to religion, we concentrate on the details so that we forget the wider message. People who don’t see the positivity in the show sometimes leave at intermission, but the problem is they are leaving during the buildup of the punch line. The entire message of the show is delivered in the second act. So you have to make it through the parts with the questions because it creates a path to the end. Actually, it is pretty unanimous with the people who didn’t enjoy the show. They are people who didn’t finish it.”

It has been my experience that after touring show performances in Indy, many fans make their way to the venue’s stage doors to meet and chat with the performers. When asked who shows up after “Mormon” Peirson said, “A lot of young people, which is really great. It varies from young people to those who have been theatre fans their whole lives. Sometimes, it will be a group of moms who want to tell us how much fun they had. The demographic is really broad, but it’s great because it shows just how many different people experience a very unifying evening together at the theatre.”

Wrapping up our phone chat, I asked Peirson to tell me what those who have never seen the show before can expect. “I would say that they will just have a fun night. A departure and escape. There is a reason it has been running for so long. It’s a fun night out.” And what about the people, like me, who’ve seen it several times? “Well, you have to come and see and hear the things you missed.”

An important note:

The  production will conduct a pre-show lottery at the box office, making a limited number of tickets available at $25 apiece. Entries will be accepted at the box office beginning two and a half hours prior to each performance. Each person will print their name and the number of tickets (1 or 2) they wish to purchase on a card that is provided. Two hours before curtain, names will be drawn at random for a limited number of tickets priced at $25 each. Only one entry is allowed per person. Cards are checked for duplication prior to drawing. Winners must be present at the time of the drawing and show valid ID to purchase tickets. Limit one entry per person and two tickets per winner. Tickets are subject to availability.

The Book of Mormon” will play eight performances December 18-23, 2018. The performance schedule is Tuesday through Thursday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Friday & Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m., Saturday matinee at 2:00 pm, Sunday matinee at 1:00 p.m., and Sunday evening at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available in person at Clowes Memorial Hall, the Old National Centre Ticket Office, online at BroadwayinIndianapolis.com or by phone at 1-800-982-2787.

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Author

Tom Alvarez

Tom Alvarez is a freelance writer who has covered theater, dance, music and the visual arts for 40 years. He has written for the Indianapolis Star, NUVO Newsweekly, Indianapolis Monthly, Arts Indiana, Unite Magazine, Dance Magazine, Examiner.com and other publications. Tom appears regularly as a contributor on WISH-Channel 8's "Indy Style." A principal of Klein & Alvarez Productions, LLC, he is co-creator of the company's original "Calder, The Musical" and managing director of its Magic Thread Cabaret. For information regarding both endeavors, visit www.kleinandalvarez.com. Also an actor/model, Tom is represented by the Helen Wells Agency and Heyman Talent Artists Agency.

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