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Every day they write the 'Book of Mormon'

Cody Jamison Strand was agog when he earned a spot in the cast of "The Book of Mormon."

And then, the nerves crept in.

The 24-year-old realized he'd struck comic gold with the role of Elder Arnold Cunningham — whom he describes as happy, over-excited and a tad crazy — but was worried about how his father, a pastor, would react.

So Strand first broke the news to his mother, who conducted some investigation into the religious-satire musical and then eased her husband into it. She started with the more "politically correct" songs, he said, and then segued to the more risque numbers.

Now, nearly two years have passed, and the South Dakota resident has lost track of the number of times his parents have shown their support by attending — and loving — the show.

"I do remember saying to them , 'No matter what happens, you have to stay to the end,'" Strand recounted. "Because by the end of the show, it has such a pro-faith message — that it doesn't matter what you believe or do as long as we all work together to make this our paradise planet — that you can't help but love it."

"The Book of Mormon" was created over a seven-year period by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the minds behind "South Park," and Robert Lopez, co-composer of "Avenue Q." The musical, which has nine Tony Awards, a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album and an almost cult-like following, , is coming to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts between May 13 and 25. The venue will conduct a lottery for a limited number of $25 tickets, two-and-a-half hours prior to each show.

Center President Terry Dwyer, an equally ardent musical theater and "South Park" fan, called the work "bold" and "original."

"How they are able to tackle such an eclectic range of topics, including some that are great 'taboos' for many, with such consistent sincerity and hilarity, is simply astounding," he said. "I think the musical and TV show offer up some of the funniest, most irreverent material I have ever seen."


Learning about the faith

The story follows two young Mormons from the LDS Church Missionary Training Centre — Elder Kevin Price and Elder Cunningham — who travel to a remote northern Ugandan village whose population is being threatened by a despotic warlord. Although gung-ho about sharing the Book of Mormon, the pair struggle to connect with and convert the locals since they are mired in war, famine, poverty and AIDS.

Denée Benton, who plays Nabulungi, the daughter of a community leader, is part of the cast coming to Orange County.

Originally from Orlando, Florida, she is a senior in Carnegie Mellon University's undergraduate musical theater program. After completing her first semester on campus, Benton joined the "Book of Mormon" company for a month in San Francisco and 16-week run in Los Angeles, and will receive credit for participating in the second national run. One of her graduation requirements was to maintain a four-month journal, to be evaluated by her professor.

"It's so well written — there has not been a show like it," the 22-year-old said. "Each song is like an exciting treat because you've never heard anything like it before. As a musical nerd, you get excited about those things, but it's enjoyable even if you're not."

Benton, who memorized all the songs' lyrics as soon as the musical came out in 2011, believes that the creative crew didn't hold back with "The Book of Mormon." Although lines have been crossed, the intention was not to be mocking. Parker, Stone and Lopez have cleverly used satire, outlandish comedy and a shock factor to communicate circumstances that are true.

Strand agreed.

Thinking back to his first time viewing "The Book of Mormon," he remembered befriending an elderly couple seated beside him in the Eugene O'Neill Theater in New York. They decided to check back in with each other once the performance ended.

Instead, shaking with mirth, Strand and the woman clutched hands and said, "I can't believe they just did that" repeatedly throughout the production.

"I loved it," he said. "I thought it was the funniest thing I'd ever seen. The music is catchy. The jokes are brilliant. The show is really quite perfect."

Despite growing up in a religious household and attending church every Sunday, the actor admitted to not being too familiar with the Mormon faith until recently. As a member of the cast, he has encountered practitioners, visited some holy sites, learned about its history and been thoroughly impressed by just how nice and kind Mormons are.


Respecting the Elder

In May 2013, Strand, who was first cast as a standby for Elder Cunningham in the "The Book of Mormon's" first tour, was in Toronto when his agent called and right away asked, "Are you sitting down?"

"I said, 'No,' and he said, 'You probably should be,'" he remarked. "I said, 'What's going on?' I thought I was going to get fired. He said, 'You're going to be the lead on Broadway.'"

It's been a substantial adjustment to go from one performance every so often to being onstage eight times a week, he noted. The part has posed mental challenges, all while testing his physical and vocal limits. Strand has also made a concerted effort not to imitate Josh Gad, who originated the role of Elder Cunningham on Broadway, instead infusing the role with his own flair.

"They've taken a sidekick character-actor archetype of a chubby, funny guy and basically turned it on its head," said Strand, who is fervently hoping that his next project is a play, which, regardless of its topic, involves no dancing.

"They enjoy creating stereotypical musical theater characters and dissecting them and doing with them what you wouldn't expect on stage. You don't see that a lot."

After Costa Mesa, "The Book of Mormon" will travel to San Diego, Las Vegas, Seattle, Minneapolis and then the East Coast.

According to Benton, who idolizes Audra McDonald and spent her childhood choreographing dances to songs on the radio and pretending to be Whitney Houston in the mirror, the company rehearses every few weeks to ensure that the show stays fresh.

One of the highlights of her time with the show was meeting Parker and co-director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, whose credits include "The Drowsy Chaperone," "Elf" and "Monty Python's Spamalot."

"Once you get over the celebrity factor, you realize that they're just as passionate about the story as you are," Benton said. "You get to hear exactly what their intentions were and where they were coming from when they wrote some parts of the play. There's no room for guessing — you have the source right there."

Meanwhile, Strand had only two words for viewers gearing up for the musical's local run: "Buckle up."

If You Go

What: "The Book of Mormon"

Where: Segerstrom Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday between May 13 and 25

Cost: $79 to $124.75; lottery tickets are $25 and cash only

Information: http://www.scfta.org or (714) 556-2787

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