Mammon from Heaven?


O my Gad!

Josh Gad is the lyin' king of Uganda — or at least his character, the mendacious missionary Cunningham, is, in a musical that musses up the silver-hair of Broadway for fun and prophet.

As the prevaricating preacher of Mormon missionary positions in Africa, the cunning yet incapable Mormon elder has rewritten the religion's text to sex so salaciously that the Lion King himself — evoked a number of times in the mischievous musical that is "The Book of Mormon" — would have to hide the ears of his offspring Simba lest he be scarred for life.

Too bad — because Simba would be missing out on one of Broadway's best and brightest broadsides since "The Producers"; indeed "The Book of Mormon" is a musical that would have made Bialystock and Bloom go straight (to the bank) as it prepares to sweep the Tony Awards this Sunday night. (CBS3 is telecasting the awards ceremony beginning at 8 p.m.)

Instead, its own creators — Matt Stone and Trey Parker of "South Park" fame and Robert Lopez ("Avenue Q") — are banking on Tony gold this Sunday, reworking Mormon founder Joseph Smith's revered and supposedly heaven-sent gold plates into a solid-gold musical of myths and miffed opportunities.

And as a born-to-run-away loser albeit faithful follower, Cunningham may lead his theatrical alter-ego to the front of the awards show: Gad is nominated for best actor in a musical that has as much bounce as his big-belly dance numbers that shake and shake up theater's sedate and dated conceits.

While it is all so — as a Jewish Santa Claus might cavil — naughty and nice, it is just that incongruous combination culled from the iconoclastic minds of Stone and Parker that has made their TV "South Park" such a successful 12-year run.

Indeed, Cartman would do cartwheels over this show at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, in which its creators both roast and toast the religion that they've made book on.

Mammon from heaven? With some leaders in the Mormon Church reportedly calling the show their own "Fiddler on the Roof," wasn't that Tevye in the front row of a recent performance checking it out, his fingers singed from thumbing through a copy of this sinfully seditious, bawdy-but-beautiful "Book of Mormon"? On the one hand … one fan of the Good Book admiring another (the show's book is one of 14 Tony nominees)?

And as for that Gad-fly of a soaring performance: Unorthodox casting of an obviously talented South Floridian performer raised in an Orthodox family. Had Cunningham rung the bell — in his missionary zeal — of the actor's parental home, would he have felt at home amid the golden candlesticks instead of Smith's golden plates?

"I don't think Cunningham would have noticed a difference," Gad relates of the character's proverbial naivete and hypothetical introduction to an Orthodox household.

"He would have just thought we were Amish."

Stranger things have happened in stranger lands; and the tribal Ugandan "ugh" that greets member-of-the-tribe Gad on stage turns out to be not so unfamiliar. After all, Gad's webisodes of "Gigi" are gee-whiz funny as they focus on a language-challenged immigrant (Gad) making his way in America.

The immigrant saga makes inroads into Gad's own backstory: "My grandparents were Holocaust survivors," he says of his Polish and German Jewish roots, "and I grew up around the immigrant experience."

Survivors? No way to even imagine what Cunningham would make of that background — other than thinking Gad's family had somehow been reality-TV stars. Missionary impossible? "Cunningham," relates Gad, "is happily and idiotically unaware."

But how — Astaire. For his nimble and nuanced — is that a "Ha!" heard from Gad — moves around the stage, the actor has been nominated for a Fred Astaire Award. "The day I found out," Gad recalls of the much-heralded honor, "I heard a ruckus coming from" Astaire's grave, with the legendary dancer turning in it — albeit gracefully.

Putting on his top hat-trick as a dancer to go along with the singing and acting prowess owes quite a bit to Gad's roots. In fact, Gad fetes his heritage: Yes, he concedes, "some of my dance technique includes a hora — part of a homage," he comically intones.

"Mormons and Jews, you know, are not that far apart."

Maybe not on the dance floor, but the schism in religion is far and wide.

But that's just splitting semantics, isn't it? And dancer/ verbalist Gad can do the split better than most. This brainy Broadway star has a way with words: In 1999, he took home the National Forensics League National Tournament Championships.

Tongue-tied? He did it twice, winning for original oratory the preceding year.

He concedes he's "a pretty good speaker," as the Tony Award nod and previous credits (the movies "Love and Other Drugs" and "The Rocker"; being a correspondent on TV's "The Daily Show"; Broadway's "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee") speak to his talent as an actor.

"Don't let my Broadway credits fool you," he says with a laugh about the musical "Putnam County."

"I'm a terrible speller."

But he casts his spell as Elder Cunningham and, in a way, invokes an abracadabra that zeroes in on an entertainer with a big body of work.

Gad is in the details: Yes, Gad says, he has heard the many comparisons to the legendary Zero Mostel before, which he considers "a great honor," because, in major part, it was watching Mostel take on parts with inimitable mastery that influenced his own career.

"It is no small comparison."

Something Wilder

But it was a big, meaningful surprise to hear that Gene Wilder — the late Mostel's co-star in the film "The Producers" and also an icon of Gad's — was in the audience at a recent performance, offering praise for Gad's gifted give and take on stage.

One person who won't be taking in Gad's performance is his 5-month-old daughter.

"But I hope she'll see the show when it's going on its second revival," he jokes.

But before then, maybe a sequel to "The Book of Mormon?" Maybe a Jewish sequel?

Gad thinks and then considers. But, he puzzles, hasn't "Torah! Torah! Torah!" been done already?



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