‘The Book of Mormon’ stars enter homestretch of Chicago production
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org July 4, 2013 2:54PM
Ben Platt gets a piggyback ride from Nic Rouleau on the Orleans Street bridge, Friday, May 24, 2013. They are the stars of "The Book of Mormon." | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
When: Through Oct. 6
Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe
Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayinChicgo.com
Updated: August 8, 2013 6:24AM
After a sheltered existence in Utah, the two fledgling missionaries in the hit musical “The Book of Mormon” are sent off to the blighted African nation of Uganda for their first assignment. And to be sure, Elder Kevin Price and Elder Arnold Cunningham have what might be described as a difficult relationship.
Price (played in the Chicago production by Nic Rouleau) is a smugly confident, ambitious, by-the-book poster boy of the faith. And he is hardly overjoyed when he learns he has been paired up with Cunningham (played by Ben Platt), the nerdy, worshipful kid with a far more natural affinity with Darth Vader and Yoda than Joseph Smith or Brigham Young.
Of course it is Cunningham who blossoms, even if he engages in some decidedly unorthodox conversion techniques.
Meet these actors off stage — Rouleau, with his metallic blue eyes and Chiclet-perfect teeth, and Platt, with his boyish sweetness and braininess — and they seem like blood brothers. Clearly they have become joined at the professional hip in that show-biz way that comes from the understanding that each is the other’s lifeline during a long run, with eight hugely demanding performances a week of a blockbuster musical to which audiences come with immense expectations.
The Chicago production, which began performances at the Bank of America Theatre last December, will conclude its run here on Oct. 6. And while there is no official confirmation yet, the show’s website suggests both actors will move on with the show to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.
While Rouleau, 26, perfected his performance as Price on Broadway, where he took over for the actor who had created the role, Platt, just 19, debuted as Cunningham in Chicago. His portrayal was a knockout from the start as he brought his innate youth, guile, grace and heart to the role. And not only did the chemistry between the actors’ two characters subtly shift as a result, but it humanized the show, bringing a poignancy to all the edgy satire of its “South Park”-associated creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Raised in Los Angeles, where his dad, Marc Platt, served as president of production for three major movie studios (and now heads his own company), Ben, one of five kids, followed his siblings into the Adderly School, an intensive after-school musical theater program in Santa Barbara.
“Their interest sort of tapered off, but I fell in love,” said Platt, who made his mark in the 2012 film musical “Pitch Perfect,” playing Benji Applebaum.
Rouleau, who grew up in the Bay Area, admits he was “the only person in his family even remotely involved in the arts. But I was part of a children’s choir at school, and then joined the excellent Peninsula Youth Theatre, where I ended up doing 35 shows.”
Rouleau eventually headed off to New York University, where he earned a B.A. in music and vocal performance. Platt, “always academically oriented,” was about to begin Columbia University in New York, “to major in art history, and maybe pursue a career in art conservation,” when he got sidetracked by “Book of Mormon.” He is now accruing credit in Columbia’s General Studies program.
“One of the great things about being in Chicago has been having the chance to visit the Art Institute and its amazing collection of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists,” said Platt. “ ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ [the Stephen Sondheim classic inspired by the Art Institute’s Seurat masterpiece] is my all-time favorite musical.”
So how did the actors get cast in “Book of Mormon”?
Recalled Rouleau: “About a month before I auditioned, a friend won the ticket lottery for the show and we saw it from an upper box seat. I immediately called my mom and said. ‘I am going to be in this show.’ I was hired as a standby on Broadway for both leading roles.
“And I actually knew quite a bit about Mormonism because when I was in ‘Legally Blonde’ I had worked with a girl who was a member of the faith. I also understood the nice-and-polite aspect of it all because I’d spent 13 years ‘following the rules’ in Catholic schools.”
Platt attended Jewish day school until eighth grade, and then went on to a private high school he loved.
“I got a call from my manager saying they were having a lot of trouble finding someone to play Arnold [Cunningham] for the tour, and that Scott Rudin [a leading ‘Mormon’ producer] knew my work in ‘Pitch Perfect,’ ” said Platt. “I had seen the show and loved it, and I knew the soundtrack by heart. But I skewed things younger, so [director] Casey Nicholaw really helped take the show in a bit of a different direction.”
“The truth is,” Platt said, “the material in this show is so good, all you have to do is trust it.”