Taking a read of the musical ‘The Book Of Mormon’

At Citi Emerson Colonial Theatre through Oct. 11

Jake Emmerling (third from left) with the cast of the national touring company of “The Book of Mormon,” playing the Citi Emerson Colonial Theatre through October 11. 	Photo © Joan Marcus, 2014Jake Emmerling (third from left) with the cast of the national touring company of “The Book of Mormon,” playing the Citi Emerson Colonial Theatre through October 11. Photo © Joan Marcus, 2014
Theater has been a part of Jake Emmerling’s life for as long as he can remember.  The influence began with his grandparents who were such diehard fans that when they’d visit New York, they’d see six shows in four days.  That love of the arts soon rubbed off on Jake, his brother and his cousins.

His stage debut came in the first grade. “I was the doctor for a lion that was sick or something that like. I couldn’t learn my lines,” he said, adding with a wry edge, “So that was great.”

The young actor is currently in Boston performing in the national tour of the outrageous musical comedy “The Book of Mormon,” playing the Citi Emerson Colonial Theatre through Oct. 11.  He has been with the show for the past three years, has performed in 32 cities, and recently played his 1000th performance as a member of the ensemble.

Winner of nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, “The Book of Mormon” follows the comical misadventures of a mismatched pair of missionaries who travel halfway around the world to spread the good word in Uganda. 

The satirical blockbuster was written by “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, with Bobby Lopez, the Oscar-winning composer of Disney’s “Frozen” and Broadway’s “Avenue Q.”   

Raised in Derry, PA, Emmerling trained at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera School for Music Theater during high school.  He later attended Shenandoah Conservatory, graduating magna cum laude with a BFA in Music Theater and a Minor in Dance.  He also received the school’s Excellence in Theater Award.

We spoke while “Mormon” was playing at the Kennedy Center in Washington. D.C.  Here’s a condensed look at our conversation.

Q. With theater such an influence in your life, when did it shift from an avocation to a possible career?
A. Sophomore year in high school.  I did “West Side Story.”  That’s when everyone started saying, “Oh, you can actually do this” . . . I had never thought of it that way. One of my teachers in high school – Jim Julian, my chorus teacher – told my parents during one of the Parent-Teacher Nights to take me down (to Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera School) if I wanted to actually pursue it.   We looked into it and I got tested by taking a ballet class with a lot of six-year-old girls. I was like 15, 16 . . . My Mom and Dad were so supportive.  They said if you really want to do this, let’s do it.  So I just jumped in.

Q. “The Book of Mormon” is a fairly auspicious way to make your national tour debut.
A.  I’m very grateful.  It’s very surreal. The entire rehearsal process, as stressful as it was, was crazy.  (I’m thinking), “Okay, I’m in New York City with all these Tony Award-winning directors and creatives and I’m doing their show, one of the biggest shows in the country right now” . . . It got me my Equity Card.  And it’s been a ton of fun touring the country.

Q. Were you already a “South Park” fan?
A. I was. I was. Growing up, it was one of those shows that we weren’t allowed to watch (laughing). But of course we’d sneak it in everyone once in a while, go to a friend’s house or something.

Q. Did Trey Parker and Matt Stone have approval on your casting?
A. For one of my two final callbacks in Chicago, the entire creative team, everyone, was there, except for Matt, Trey and Bobby.  There were like nine people behind the table when we auditioned . . . It was videotaped . . . Which was also kind of scary.  But from my understanding, they sent them the video tapes and they literally had to approve us.

Q. Were they involved in your rehearsals?
A. They were very active, actually . . . We rehearsed in November and they had to take time off from “South Park” to come out (to New York) and rehearse us.  It was right in the middle of their season.  It was crazy, but they did it, they made it work . . . They really wanted to make sure their show was exactly what they wanted it to be . . . Very hands on. Very, very, very invested, which was really cool to watch.

Q. What are they like personally?
A. You’d think Matt and Trey – the creators of “South Park” – should be very funny and know comedy.  And it’s so true . . . They really understand comedy.  Not just funny guys making jokes back and forth . . . (They) wouldn’t just look at (the work) and say “No, I don’t like what you’re doing, its not funny.” They’d look at it and say, “I see what you’re trying to go for, but let’s try it from this perspective” . . . They really encouraged everyone’s creativity.

Q.  And what about Casey Nicholaw, your choreographer and co-director with Trey.  He’s worked on everything from “Spamalot” to “Aladdin.”
A. He has such a keen eye . . . He was adamant about keeping the show clean.  Not, of course, literally clean, but the show itself, the message.  They were adamant that the Mormon boys were actually Mormons.  From day one (Casey and Trey said) “We’re not out to make fun of Mormons. That’s not what we’re doing.  These are not caricatures. This is not ‘South Park’ -- this is not cutouts.”  We are actual people . . . So that’s what I try to bring to it every night.

Q.  I’m impressed with how familiar you are with your family ancestry.  I know you trace your roots back to the McKennas, O’Connors, Garrigans, Skelleys and Haneys in Limerick, Kerry, Emmsken, Londonderry, and Clare. What sparked your curiosity?
A. It started it about ten or 15 years ago. One of my Mom’s cousins went to Ireland to visit distant relatives and when she came back, she told us all about it and showed pictures.   That’s when everyone in my family was like, let’s do this, make a family tree.  So we’ve been keeping up with it . . . It’s crazy to think about it, the heritage, where we come from . . . I haven’t been to Ireland yet, but it’s on my list.

R. J. Donovan is the editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.
“The Book of Mormon,” through Oct. 11, Citi Emerson Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston St., Boston.  Tickets: 800-982-2787 or visit BroadwayInBoston.com.