BY MELISSA RUGGIERI
When “The Book of Mormon” debuted on Broadway in 2011, it was immediately branded controversial because of its subject matter — possible mockery of the Mormon religion — and the reputation of its co-creators, “South Park” impresarios Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Five years later, the show, which was bestowed with nine Tony Awards that inaugural year, has become a cultural touchstone — a hilarious one at that — and is circling the country on its second national tour while still playing at 100 percent capacity on Broadway.
Clearly, tens of thousands of theatergoers get the joke.
“The Book of Mormon” last visited Atlanta in January 2014 (its arrival coincided with that of Snow Jam) and it will again stake out at the Fox Theatre Jan. 12-24.
The show is stuffed with singeing, often ribald wit (even Disney gets jabbed), but its story of the two young Mormon missionaries sent to a remote village in Uganda for recruitment purposes is also filled with a big, gooey heart.
“Trey and Matt say the most outlandish things, but present it in such a way that we the characters genuinely believe in everything we’re saying. We’re not making fun of it. We’ve done our research,” said Candace Quarrels, who plays Nabulungi, the daughter of a Ugandan village chief. “The Mormon religion, they’re very devout. They believe everything in that book, and that truth is what lets us get away with what we’re saying. Even though the audience might look around like, is it OK to laugh at this? The responses are more like that than people being extremely offended.”
Quarrels, a Memphis, Tenn., native who has family in Atlanta, was a student at Belmont University last year when a friend showed her a flier for an open-call audition for the show in Nashville. Within weeks, the musical theater student whose previous primary experience was performing in the “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” musical revue at Carowinds theme park in North Carolina, was packing to join the “Mormon” tour.
“It’s as storybook as you get,” the sweetly soft-spoken Quarrels said.
Much of the rest of the cast are veteran players, including Cody Jamison Strand, who portrays the “little bundle of chaos” Elder Cunningham.
One of Strand’s showcase moments is his rapid-fire riffing on Nabulungi’s name (during the great Idina Menzel/John Travolta name controversy of 2014, Strand threw in “Adele Dazeem” as one mangled version of her name).
“I love Cody so much,” Quarrels said. “It’s an ongoing joke that if he can make me break (during that scene), he has accomplished his goal for the night.”
Strand, for his part, swears that isn’t his intention, but sometimes, well, goofy things happen.
“The beauty of live theater is that the show isn’t the same every night. I thrive on it. There’s a lot of freedom there to embrace your inner weirdo,” the amiable actor said.
Strand, a South Dakotan, began as a standby on the 2012 tour before he was called up to the majors in May 2013 to portray the clingy, needy Elder Cunningham on Broadway, which he did for eight months before returning to the road production.
His affection for the nerdy Cunningham is still palpable.
“He’s like a wrench thrown into the perfect Mormon system,” Strand said with a giddy laugh. “Through his own pure intentions, he ruins everything he touches.”
Joining Elder Cunningham is Elder Price — “Their love is a pure love, but also a very one-sided love,” Strand said — and Atlanta will mark the debut of Ryan Bondy as the full-time inhabitant of the Price role (Bondy has long been the understudy).
For those who might be experiencing their first dose of “Mormon” during this run, Strand has some advice.
“Be open to the journey because you’re going to go on one,” he said. “Be ready to laugh, be ready to be shocked and offended and then laugh at yourself for being offended.”
“The Book of Mormon”
7:30 p.m. Jan. 12-14 and Jan. 19-21; 8 p.m. Jan. 15 and Jan. 22; 2 and 8 p.m. Jan. 16 and Jan. 23; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Jan. 17 and Jan. 24. $35-$150. Show contains explicit language. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, www.foxtheatre.org.