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Elder Kevin Price has an idea why “The Book of Mormon” is the most popular — and best — musical of the 21st century.

Well, not really Elder Price, but Kevin Clay, the actor who plays the zealous Mormon missionary in the national touring company that will deliver eight performances next week at the Lied Center for Performing Arts.

Clay was calling from New York, where he was filling in as Elder Price on Broadway. The irreverent, nine-time Tony Award-winner has run there since 2011.

“For me, what makes the show so great is the combination of it being such a great comedy, the music and combining what was such an intelligent, thought-out book Matt and Trey wrote," Clay said, referencing "South Park" creators Matt Parker and Trey Stone.

“It’s not a throwaway comedy with a few shocks. It has a message about organized religion and faith-based communities, how we can use them for good or bad, and what it means for our everyday lives. That conversation is something that’s never going to go away, especially in our country.”

Elder Price is a dedicated believer whose transformation is at the heart of the show. The character is sent to Uganda — where things don't go well, in part thanks to his nerdy, compulsively lying partner Elder Arnold Cunningham. Meanwhile, Elder Price learns that living with the hardships of AIDS, poverty and a tyrannical warlord makes converting people difficult, if not impossible.

“I relate to Elder Price very, very closely, both for good and bad, I suppose,” Clay said. “I was raised Catholic and I think really Elder Price and I went through a similar process in learning that the specificity of any religion isn’t the most important thing. I think I can bring a lot of my life experience to that. I’m not quite as stubborn as Elder Price — depending on who you talk to.”

Clay, who has played Elder Price for about two years, joined the touring company in 2015, right after he graduated from Penn State.

“I started in the ensemble as Elder Smith,” Clay said. “Slowly, over the years, I worked my way up to playing Elder Price. This show, this tour, has been an amazing way for people to get started in their careers. It’ll be interesting going to do whatever I do next. What do other roles feel like? It’s been so many years, I’ve forgotten.”

In part, Clay’s forgotten the other roles because he really likes “The Book of Mormon,” whether he’s in the ensemble or acting as Elder Price.

"It’s so fun to play,” he said. “The comedy is so good. The music, for anybody who’s seen the show, gets in your head. It’s catchy. They wrote it in a way like classic musical theater. For any performer, it’s a joy to sing.”

But Clay said, like the actors in “Spamalot,” the players in “The Book of Mormon” can’t get caught up in the comedy and must play things absolutely straight.

“That’s especially true with Elder Price. I have to be very serious and focused,” he said. “I leave the comedy to Elder Cunningham. I have to trust him to bring the comedy. Even then, I have to treat him in character. I’m Elder Price going on a mission; Cunningham is not funny, he’s annoying.”

The other challenge, again applicable to nearly every plot-driven musical, is convincingly breaking into song — which, to state the obvious, doesn’t happen in everyday life.

“The great music theater performers are the ones that make that, when you start singing, feel perfectly natural. It can’t feel like it’s coming out of nowhere,” Clay said. “You have to feel like I can’t say any more, I have to sing to get my point across. It’s the same with dancing too.”

“The Book of Mormon” generated a bit of controversy when it opened, its depiction of Ugandans criticized as racist.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, however, had a more measured response, concerned that some of the beliefs incorporated into the book aren’t accurate and the parody would be taken as real. But, in flyers handed out outside theaters, it good naturedly tells audience members, "You’ve seen the play, now read the book."

Having done the musical in dozens of cities — he was playing Elder Smith when the touring company stopped in Omaha two years ago — Clay said audience reactions vary depending on place.

“If we’re in the Bible Belt, we sort of know some jokes will be reacted to differently than if we’re in Chicago or L.A., and if we’re coming to a market for the first time, we know most of the audience hasn’t seen it before, so they’ll have a different reaction than in a place we’ve been to four or five times," he said.

“We went to Anchorage, Alaska, recently for the first time and there was a really cool energy there. I know it’s our first time in Lincoln. We’re really looking forward to that. Those first time places are the best.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSWolgamott.

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Entertainment reporter/columnist

L. Kent Wolgamott is an entertainment reporter and columnist.

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