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U-M grad accentuates the "positive" message of "The Book of Mormon"

By Gary Graff
ggraff@digitalfirstmedia.com, @GraffonMusc on Twit

Posted: Tuesday, December 4, 2018

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Andy Huntington Jones was raised in the Unitarian Universalist church — a fairly far cry from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But being part of the satiristic "The Book of Mormon" has proved an easy fit for the University of Michigan alumnus.

"I love doing the show," says Jones, 29, who plays Elder McKinley in the touring company of the Tony Award-winning musical that comes to Detroit’s Fisher Theatre this week. "There are not any shows I've ever done before that make the audience laugh quite so hard — and we've had a lot of people write notes to the company to express how needed this laughter was for them.

"That's a really incredible thing to experience in a musical."

The laughter, of course, is what's made "The Book of Mormon" so successful — and controversial — since its Broadway debut during 2011. Written by "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone along with composer Robert Lopez, it traces the fortunes of fresh-faced Mormon missionaries assigned to a hostile region in Uganda. None of the characters, from the Mormons to the Africans, are spared by Parker and Stone's sharp pens, but Jones argues that focusing on the barbs misses the message behind the production.

"I think the message is ultimately positive, and that was a surprise for me," he explains by phone. "I kinda thought the show was just 'South Park's' take on the Mormon faith, and it's really not. It's more about friendship and growing up and disappointment and faith than it is about poking fun at Mormons.

"I think the audience can relate to these characters because I think that our desire to belong is something that everyone feels on a daily basis, and that's the journey they go through. There's so much heart in the show, and that has made it possible to be part of it."

Theater, in fact, was the place Jones felt his own sense of belonging at an early age.

Raised an only child, though with "a big extended family," in Boston, Jones heard plenty of music at home and became a fan of musical theater. But it was during a performance of "Wicked" when he was a teenager that he was "blown away by how entertaining this was, but also how meaningful the story was. I thought, 'I've got to try my hand at this. I have to give this a shot.'"

His ambition led him to Ann Arbor, attracted by U-M's strong but intimate musical theater program as well as the vibe on campus. Though only a "social" fan of the school's sports teams (other "Mormon" cast and crew with U-M ties are more passionate, he notes), Jones still has fond memories of Kerrytown and Zingerman's, as well as "the old, crappy college houses I used to live in." He also credits U-M with solidifying his passion.

"Something I loved about Michigan and another reason I went into this career was this strong sense of community that comes from 20 or 30 artists putting on a play," Jones says. "In every different job I've worked I've formed this new family that creates a story for an audience. That's so infectious. I really felt like I belonged to something."

Jones is proud that he's "cobbled together a career so far" since graduating. That includes being part of Broadway productions of "Cats," "Cinderella" and "Bullets Over Broadway," as well as tours with "Cinderella" and "West Side Story."

"I don't know what I expected it to be, but there's nothing like achieving a tangible goal like that — longevity in a career," says Jones, who now calls New York home. "It's been incredible to perform in New York; Seeing shows on Broadway is one of the things that made me fall in love with musical theater in the first place, so to be working eight times a week and living in New York, it's a grueling schedule, but it's great.

"It feels like the gamble paid off."

• "The Book of Mormon" plays Tuesday through Sunday, Dec. 4-9, at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tickets start at $39; 313-872-1000 or broadwayindetroit.com.

Web Site: www.broadwayindetroit.com

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