Like the mismatched missionaries they play in the Tony-winning musical “The Book of Mormon,” Billy Harrigan Tighe and A.J. Holmes feel that they are on a mission together.
“We both started in the West End (London) production and, in a meta way, it’s been quite a mission together,” says Tighe, a Georgia native from Marietta who now stars with Holmes in this national tour that opens the new Theater League season.
“Like our characters, we met and were immediately shipped off together to create this unlikely friendship built on differences,” Tighe says of bonding backstage as both actors and friends. “I’m more clean-cut, put-together, precise, if you will. But we are both giving people. I have come to think the world of A.J.”
Adds Holmes, who grew up in Agoura Hills, Calif., near Los Angeles: “I’d call it a bromance. My character is pretty nerdy and is more comfortable with science fiction/fantasy characters than real people. He learns what it’s like to have a real friend. As much as I try to run from that, a lot of me is like that – particularly from high school. I can empathize.”
Tighe plays Elder Kevin Price, an ambitious zealot wanting to rack up reward points for the afterlife, and Holmes plays Elder Arnold Cunningham, a good-hearted but blissfully ignorant schlub intent on just getting through today rather than worrying about the future.
The two 19-year-olds were hoping to spend their required two-year mission in the comfortable climes of Orlando, Fla., but are shocked and even a bit horrified to learn they are headed to Uganda. There they encounter poverty, famine, genital mutilation, despair, disease and a dangerously unhinged warlord who makes life miserable for everyone.
Naturally, it’s a comedy. Or, more specifically, sharp religious satire with telling, tongue-in-cheek songs like “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” “All American Prophet,” “Making Things Up Again” and “Tomorrow Is a Latter Day.”
The show is from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Emmy-winning creators of the ground-breaking and irreverent “South Park” animated series, and Robert Lopez, Tony-winning co-creator of “Avenue Q” with its potty-mouthed puppets.
And, yes, it’s strong stuff, from sensitive religious topics to adult language, including one major character’s name that can’t be printed in this family newspaper.
But the musical won nine Tony Awards, including best musical of 2011, and near universal critical acclaim, including being proclaimed “the best musical of this century” by the New York Times. It even received a polite, measured response from the LDS Church itself, which purchased advertising space in the Broadway playbill after the show opened.
Holmes, who got his theater degree from the University of Michigan, has been part of “The Book of Mormon” since graduating 2 1/2 years ago.
“I’ve been in all four major productions. It’s been a dream role. I am very grateful because it’s hard to dream bigger at this point,” says Holmes, who also previously toured with “Young Frankenstein.”
Holmes describes Elder Cunningham as “overeager” and “a good guy” but “just pretty weird.”
“He’s socially awkward, but I like that he always looks for the best in people. He’s always trying to please others. He has lots of flaws, but being lazy isn’t one of them,” Holmes says.
His biggest flaw – and a lot of the show’s humor – is that he tends to make things up when talking about church doctrine because his knowledge is a little shaky on the facts. Some of the outlandish teachings he comes up with prove popular with the Ugandans but will come back to haunt him when mission supervisors demand a progress report.
Tighe is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music who has been with the show about a year and a half. He previously was on Broadway with “Pippin” and on national tours of “Wicked,” “La Cage aux Folles” and “Dirty Dancing.”
“Elder Price is a golden boy in the church who is absolutely ambitious and a perfectionist. He’s a typical Type A, an alpha male who wants to be known as the best,” Tighe says of his character. “He is sure that if he believes hard enough, it will all come true. When he doesn’t get his way, he wonders why he’s being tested.”
Elder Price’s biggest flaw is his naivete, his inability to see the world the way it really is rather than the way he always expected it to be, Tighe says.
“He is so blind to the future that he misses the present,” the actor says.
Together, the two young missionaries become what the actors call “a traditional odd couple” who meld their mismatched strengths to succeed as a team.
Of the adult elements, Tighe says “South Park” fans won’t be surprised or shocked. “Some of it may seem crude, but it’s rooted in truth,” he says.
Adds Holmes: “It’s hysterical if we do it right.”
Of any controversy, Holmes says the show is “not hurtful or malicious” about religion. “It’s a very powerful message about using the time we have on earth to help others. Do good things now. The time is now.”
Adds Tighe: “It’s what the creators called an ‘atheist’s love story to religion,’ because neither of them is particularly religious. The takeaway is that faith is a beautiful thing, but we must be concerned with actually helping others today rather than just promising some spiritual reward in the afterlife. It’s a larger message than just one church.”
If You Go
‘The Book of Mormon’
What: Opening the 2015-2016 Theater League season is this 2011 multiple Tony-winning religious satire from irreverent “South Park” creators about two mismatched missionaries’ misadventures in Uganda
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, 2 and 8 p.m. Nov. 27-28 and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 29
Tickets: $50-$135, 316-303-8100 or www.wichitatix.com