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Hello! With ‘The Book of Mormon,’ Mr. Smith (and friends) comes to Fresno

So I’m sitting on a bench with my laptop in a swanky North Fresno shopping center — more on that in a moment — talking on my phone to Joseph Smith.

Yes, that Joseph Smith.

We’ve been chatting less than a minute when my interviewee’s voice shifts into full-bore demon cell-phone mode. You know what it’s like: The words on the other end suddenly get slow and grotesque, each syllable stretching into Satanic-sounding menace.

And I think: Perhaps I shouldn’t have joked at the start of the call that it’s not every day you speak to a prophet.

And then, just as suddenly as it occurred, Broadway actor Ron Bohmer, a veteran of “The Book of Mormon” national tour, is back on the line, his voice normal, sounding like the accomplished professional that he is.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’ve had weird phone stuff in Canada.” (The tour last week was in Vancouver. It runs Oct. 3-7 in Fresno.)

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In the past, I’ve interviewed the actors playing elders Price and Cunningham, the energetic and (mostly) well-ironed Mormon missionaries in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s massive Broadway hit. I thought it would be fun for this visit of the tour to chat with the guy who portrays Joseph Smith — along with Jesus, the Mission President and a couple of smaller roles as well.

“I play all the older white guys in the show,” he says.

We could only talk for about 20 minutes, but we covered a lot of ground. Here’s a rundown of some key points:

Wait. Before you get on with all things Broadway, why were you sitting on a bench in a shopping center next to a hair salon? Well, if you must know, I messed up the time with the New York publicist (it’s that pesky three-hour-time-difference), and I had a haircut scheduled just before the rescheduled phone interview, so after my hairs were cut, I raced outside with my laptop, found a bench and started talking. It isn’t every day that I talk to Joseph Smith sitting outside a place selling $34 shampoo, but, hey, in arts journalism you have to roll with the punches.

Broadway veteran Ron Bohmer plays Joseph Smith, Jesus and others in the national tour of ‘The Book of Mormon.’

On the road. A lot. Bohmer has been with the tour for a whopping four and a half years, with just a few breaks for other projects. He came to Fresno the first time the show traveled through. His time on the road with “Mormon” breaks a record set by him during a two-and-a-half year run in the Broadway company of “Les Miserables” playing “Enjolras.”

Playing Joseph Smith is a big responsibility. Especially in Utah. “I was with the show the very first time it played Salt Lake City. Matt and Trey decided to do some interviews. They basically said to the press, ‘We want Salt Lake to know this is like a homecoming to us. This show is a love letter to faith. It celebrates Salt Lake.’ ”

Bohmer adds that the response to the show there was so overwhelmingly positive. There are lots of inside references in the show that people familiar with the LDS church — both current and lapsed members — think are hysterical. (To be fair, there are also church members and others who remain offended by the show, and a lot of that has to do with its strong profanity.)

He plays the offstage voice in the opening of the show that tells the spanking-new missionaries the location they’re assigned to. Here’s the funny thing: In almost five years of doing the show, he’s never been able to memorize those lines because he’s not actually looking at someone when he talks. “I always read them because I’m afraid I’d get confused,” he says.

Sometimes I have a true Broadway Geek moment in an interview. I had a big one this time. It turns out that Bohmer was one of the youngest performers ever hired for “Forbidden Broadway,” the satirical show that ran for more than 25 years. He was in the installment titled “Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit,” which just happens to be one of my favorites. (When Bohmer in “Harvey Fierstein as Tevye” sings those immortal words, “If I were a straight man, and my voice were not as raspy as a pickled prostitute,” it cracks me up every time.) Go ahead, find the CD. It’s hilarious.

Finally, we talk a little about why “Book of Mormon” is still going strong — both on Broadway and on the road. For Bohmer, it’s because audience members who see the show keep telling their friends: “You’ve gotta see it. I have never laughed so hard in my life.” And nothing can really prepare you for what happens when you put more than 1,000 people in a room and engage communally in an uproarious story like this.

It’s also the sweetness of the storyline, he says, despite what some might see as its sacrieigious tendencies. At its heart, “The Book of Mormon” is about a goofy kid who figures out that making up stories can help people around him. It’s a feel-good story, and rather than bashing religion, it manages (in a goofy and, again, extremely profane way — can’t emphasize that enough) to celebrate it as well.

“The beauty of it, like any true musical, is that everything’s going to work out at the end,” he says.

And that’s Joseph Smith talking, so you’d better listen.


Important note: The Fresno production will conduct a pre-show lottery at the box office, making a limited number of tickets available at $25 apiece. Entries will take place at the Saroyan Theatre Box Office.

Entries will be accepted at the box office beginning two and a half hours prior to each performance; each person will print their name and the number of tickets (1 or 2) they wish to purchase on a card that is provided. Two hours before curtain, names will be drawn at random for a limited number of tickets priced at $25 each. Only one entry is allowed per person. Cards are checked for duplication prior to drawing. Winners must be present at the time of the drawing and show valid ID to purchase tickets. Limit one entry per person and two tickets per winner. Tickets are subject to availability.


Show info

“The Book of Mormon,” opens 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 3, Saroyan Theatre. Continues through Sunday, Oct. 7. Tickets are $39-$129.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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