By Doug George
4:07 PM CST, December 19, 2012
We spoke with three actors in the Chicago company of “The Book of Mormon,” now at the Bank of America Theatre.James Vincent Meredith as Mafala Hatimbi
James Vincent Meredith is the ranking Chicagoan in the cast, a longtime Chicago stage actor, a Steppenwolf ensemble member, and not funny at all.
That is to say, the man who plays Mafala Hatimbi has about zip experience doing comedy on a stage.
“You know, I have more of a drama background,” he said.
Meredith's recent local credits include “The March” and “Clybourne Park” at the Steppenwolf Theatre and “Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting” at Lookingglass. He played Officer Hailey in the “Superior Donuts” production that opened on Broadway and is recognizable as Alderman Ross to fans of TV's “Boss.” He graduated from Evanston Township High School in 1989 and some of his first stage experience was through the Piven Theatre Workshop. He has acting chops. But he says he was surprised when his agent suggested “Book of Mormon.”
His agent said they were looking for someone to play the role absolutely honestly, without any comedic wink.
“You really have to play it straight for the jokes to hit,” Meredith said.
His character Hatimbi is the spiritual leader of this community in Uganda where Elder Price and Elder Cunningham end up, he said. At first, he's resistant to these guys in white shirts who show up and start preaching.
“But the love of his life is his daughter,” Meredith says, and she becomes interested in Mormonism, “so his interest is piqued.”
People who haven't seen the show probably know it's funny, he said, but their real discovery is going to be the music. His two favorite songs (“And I'm leaving what I sing out of it”) are “Man Up” in Act 1 and “Baptize Me” in Act 2.
Meredith is one of just a few Chicagoans in the cast (Jackson Evans as Elder McKinley is a recent Northwestern grad). When his cast mates ask him what to do on their rare nights off, top of his list, he said, are the Chicago theaters that outsiders (read: New Yorkers) haven't heard of but should: Steep, House Theatre, Gift Theatre, TimeLine.
Nic Rouleau as Elder Price
Nic Rouleau is Elder Price, a role he first got to play on Broadway. So you'd think he could just walk into the Chicago production and take over. You'd think.
When Rouleau was starting out in New York, first as a standby for Andrew Rannells, then assuming the show's leading role, he had in mind he wanted to open with his own company, he said. “To start fresh with new people and find my way all over again.”
Practically speaking, he formerly had to be Rannells being Price in New York. “There were things I did just because Andrew did,” he said, “to make other people in the cast feel comfortable.”
It was mostly a difference in physicality. “I was coming off a bit cartoonish,” he said. In Chicago rehearsals, “they called it noodley. Over and over again, actually. I was noodley.”
So he toned it down. Example? “I found, rather than shimmy my shoulders back to stand up straight, I could just stand up straight.”
He describes Price as the face of Mormonism for “The Book of Mormon,” Rouleau said. “He's naturally a little more confident than I am as a person. ... He's 100 percent confident that he'll go out on his mission and change the world.”
Maybe it turns out that way, maybe it doesn't.
Asked to name his favorite part of the show, Rouleau says the music — the way it pays homage to past Broadway musicals without anyone really noticing. “You have to be pretty familiar with the musical theater canon,” he said, but his big Act 2 solo, “I Believe,” is about identical to “I Have Confidence” from “The Sound of Music.”
“If you listened to one and then the other, you would laugh,” he said.
Chicago has been treating Rouleau well so far. He's gotten out to see the city a little and has mastered the CTA. Sort of. He was late for his interview because he went a stop too far on the Red Line and had to turn around.
“I still finding my way,” he said. “But it's pretty similar to New York.”
Ben Platt as Elder Cunningham
Ben Platt, just 19, plays Elder Cunningham opposite Rouleau's Price. He grew up around musical theater and show business in Los Angeles: His father, Marc Platt, was a lead producer of “Wicked”; he was in the national tour of “Caroline, or Change” at age 11. Still a student at Columbia University in New York, Platt is best known as Benji from the 2012 movie “Pitch Perfect.” That was the role that got him the “Book of Mormon” job, he said. Benji “was sort of the nerdy, comic-relief kind of guy” — which also describes Elder Cunningham.
“Cunningham is just one of these guys who's slightly off,” Platt said. “A bit inappropriate, doesn't understand social cues. He's a bit obsessed with Price and wants to please him.”
No resemblance to the actual Platt. Well, few.
“When I get really enthusiastic, I do kind of blurt things out,” Platt said. “We're similar that way. The other parts I've had to sort of work to find.”
Being in a show as big as “The Book of Mormon” has been an amazing experience so far, he said. “It's totally a dream come true.”
Asked to pick a favorite moment, he singles out a scene midway through Act 1.
“The beginning of the show is big and crazy, and then there's this smaller scene with just Nic,” he said. “I always love getting to that scene.” Cunningham and Price are bunking down for the night. “It's like we're having a sleepover,” Platt said.