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On a mission

‘Book of Mormon’ actor returns to Tulsa in leading role

Conner Peirson in “The Book of Mormon”

Julieta Cervantes

It was quite a coup when the Tulsa Performing Arts Center Trust brought “The Book of Mormon” to Tulsa for the first time in 2015. Under the leadership of Shirley Elliott, the Trust made a bold move that paid off: the acid-tongued, bitingly hilarious, poignant and pointed Broadway musical from the writers of “South Park” and “Avenue Q” landed strong.

Four years later, “The Book of Mormon” returns under the banner of Celebrity Attractions for an eight-show run at the PAC. If you missed it before, this is your lucky break. Hailed as perhaps the funniest musical ever made, the literally irreverent creation by Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez—about a Mormon mission trip to Uganda that doesn’t quite go as planned—is an equal-opportunity skewering with a tender heart. Songs include “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” and “All American Prophet” (featuring the Angel Moroni).

If you’re planning to catch it again, you’re in good company—that of actor Connor Peirson. Originally from Tacoma, Peirson ended up in the national touring cast of “The Book of Mormon” just three months after becoming a senior-year college dropout. He’s been with the show ever since. Back in 2015, when the production first came through Tulsa, he was a humble standby (i.e., an understudy). This time he’s in the main cast as Elder Cunningham, the part he understudied, one of a mismatched pair of missionaries sent out together into Africa.

Alicia Chesser Atkin: What’s it like going from the standby experience to being a full-fledged member of the ensemble?

Connor Peirson: It’s like a trade of adrenaline. When you’re going on every night, you’re revved up all the time. When you’re on standby, you could go on at any moment, so it’s like you’re waiting to be shot out of a cannon every night. There was one show when I had to go on mid-performance. The audience has to adjust, too! If someone’s suddenly different halfway through the show, they have to make the shift, and it’s your job to win them over.

Atkin: Does your approach to the musical as a whole change, too?

Peirson: When you’re understudying, you spend so much time thinking about what you might do, imagining how things might go. When you’re actually experiencing it every night, there’s not any plan. It’s more fun, because you get the time and experience to try things on stage. You get to workshop it actively. Preparing to do this part, I thought initially that I would be making a lot more conscious choices on stage. But it’s become about just being as honest and natural as possible. With the subject matter in this show, the humor doesn’t work if your intention is to make fun of someone. If your intention is to be honest as this person who is struggling, that’s what people connect to, that’s when it becomes an emotional journey for the audience.

Atkin: So the more time you spend out there being this guy in front of an audience, the more authentically you’re driven to portray him. You actors are brave.

Peirson: It’s interesting. More often than not, as an actor you’ll try to find yourself in a character. But when you’re finding yourself in the character who’s, like, the loser, it’s kind of hard to come to grips with! Elder Cunningham is trying his absolute hardest to be the best Mormon he can be, but he just doesn’t quite have the awareness to notice that he is missing the mark. But he does it so earnestly that I think it endears the audience to him. Because of Cunningham’s lack of awareness, when he is vulnerable, he is absolutely raw. That’s oddly exposing to do onstage. It feels like you’re telling the truth, and the audience responds to that. It becomes mutually rewarding. When you show the parts you might not enjoy about yourself in a character, it’s amazing how people connect with that, rather than with characters who are more “perfect.”

Atkin: Tulsa is a place where there are a lot of organizations that do mission work. John Chau, the young man killed last year by a tribe on a remote Indian island where he was trying to spread the gospel, was a graduate of ORU. Do you think a show that pokes fun at so many elements of missionary work will be challenging for this audience?

Peirson: Sure, people will be provoked—in terms of “thought-provoking.” The show covers some pretty broad topics, some that people usually aren’t comfortable discussing. Sometimes the best way in is to have a launching pad for those conversations.

Atkin: What would you say to a viewer who might feel like walking out?

Peirson: The show ends up being so pro-faith and pro-friendship, even if maybe through a lens that someone wouldn’t expect. It’s so good to stay to the end. Like every good joke or story, the punchline comes at the end. You’ve gotta stay to get that payoff. 

“The Book of Mormon”
Jan. 8-13
Tulsa Performing Arts Center
110 E. 2nd St.
Tickets start at $35
918-596-7111 or tulsapac.com

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