The Book of Mormon invades Florida, and brings legions of LGBT fans with it

By : Joseph Kissel
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In the spring of 2011, the world was re-introduced to a religion that was just over 100 years old. The vulgar, offensive”and hilarious”The Book of Mormon”went on to win nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

A year later, the original cast recording won a Grammy Award, a rarity these days in the world of Broadway. The musical is the brain child of South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker and Robert Lopez, the mind behind Avenue Q. Now it’s touring the country and stops at the Bob Carr Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando through Nov. 8 and the Straz Center in Tampa Nov. 12-24.

The popularity of the musical is so large that when the Straz Center began selling tickets online in September, web traffic shut down the site for several hours.

The idea for The Book of Mormon was truly an example of being in the right place at the right time for the three men.
“Matt and I went to see Avenue Q when it opened in 2003, and we were like, ‘Wow, this is actually really good,'” says Parker. “When it was over I was thinking, This is exactly the kind of thing we’ve dreamed about doing.”

During intermission, Parker and Stone met with Lopez, who said that the 1999 animated film South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, inspired him to create Avenue Q. The conversation veered toward future projects and all three men said they wanted to make a musical about Mormons.

The subject, of course, is provocative and, for some, offensive. But that’s exactly why the trio chose the religion as its target.

“There’s a catharsis in being able to really laugh at some of the goofier ideas of religion without necessarily laughing at the people practicing them,” Stone says. “We want to give you room to feel what the show is saying to you. We don’t want to tell anybody what the point is or what the politics are. It’s up to you to figure out what it meant.”

But there is a line that The Book of Mormon gladly crosses.

“You can cross it as long as you have a reason for doing it,” Parker explains. “If it has a point and it has a story that has genuine, real characters and emotion, then you can pretty  much do whatever you want as long as you’re being truthful.”

Caught in the middle of the production is out actor Grey Henson, who plays a straight-laced missionary leader struggling with his sexuality, the role of Elder McKinley couldn’t be farther from his own experience.

I never had to hide who I was, says the 6-foot-3-inch Henson as he prepares for another performance of the show in New Orleans. It never seemed wrong. So my coming out process was pretty natural.â

Elder McKinley’s advice to the new arrivals is Turn It Off, Henson’s big number about repression and one of the most hummable songs from the show.

When you start to get confused about thoughts in your head, Henson sings. Turn it off like a light switch, just go click. It’s a cool little Mormon trick.

Unlike McKinley, Henson came out to his family while studying drama at Carnegie Mellon University.

It seemed like a no-brainer. If something’s bubbling under the surface, you need to pay attention to it. It’s important to acknowledge every part of ourselves.

And not too long after graduation, Henson won his spot in the national tour of the blockbuster musical comedy known for its shock value.

They use the crass humor to prove their points, Henson says. Stay to the end. I’ve seen a few people leave. But it’s really a touching story.

With more than 500 performances to his credit, Henson’s considered one of the veterans of the tour.

When you’ve done the show that many times, the laughter sometimes erupts on stage, too.

It’s important to enjoy the production, he says. We crack each other up all the time.

He’s noticed the jokes play differently in different cities.

Sometimes one line gets a huge laugh and another won’t get anything, he says. With 2,000 people getting together, somehow the audience collectively reacts the same way.

Henson’s particularly intrigued by the reception awaiting in Orlando, which is a frequent subject and target of the musical and even gets its own song.

The show hasn’t been through Florida yet, he said. So it will be interesting to see how that’s received.

Being from Georgia, and vacationing through the years in Florida, Henson has a more informed experience of the sunshine state than most.

“I think of Florida as its own place,” he says. “It’s not a major part of the south but it’s so big and so many people come to Florida from everywhere. It’s a melting pot.”

As for Henson, he sees himself moving to New York after Mormon ends its run on the road to pursue another role in musical theater.

And while a life in the closet may seem like a curse, Henson sees hope for Elder McKinley.

He might have a more liberated future.

It takes a liberated mind to enjoy this production, and Lopez understands that not everyone can look at a sensitive subject like religion”or profanities intertwined”in such a way.

“The musical is a machine that’s designed to bring you down and raise you up, and to give you a positive, uplifting experience,” Lopez says. “I want the musical to show people the nadir of human experience. For this musical, it’s about faith. It’s about religious feeling. And I think we show a character that loses his faith, and we give his faith back to him in a better way at the end. And I hope that the experience of the audience mirrors that, whether it’s a religious experience or just feeling entertained.”

More Info:
WHAT: The Book of Mormon
WHERE: Orlando’s Bob Carr, now through Oct. 31; Tampa’s Straz Center, Nov. 12-24

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