Samantha Marie Ware performs in "The Book of Mormon," now playing… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)
The idea that Salt Lake City could be a paradise is meant to be absurdly funny to the big city folks piling into the touring production of "The Book of Mormon" now at the Pantages Theatre. As it turns out, the notion is also humorous to someone from Lincoln, Neb.
"I've never been to Salt Lake," said Nebraskan Samantha Marie Ware, who stars as the innocent Ugandan teen Nabulungi in the Tony Award-winning musical. "Maybe I'll make it there soon."
Ware's song "Sal Tlay Ka Siti" — what the Utah capital sounds like when pronounced with a heavy Central African accent — marks a critical moment in the hit musical created by "South Park's" Trey Parker and Matt Stone along with composer and lyricist Robert Lopez. Up until her solo near the end of the first act, the musical's tone is gleefully irreverent and full of bawdy fun.
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But a surprising violent act changes the mood and Ware's delicate song of yearning must move the audience emotionally and comedically for the second act to succeed. Her character Nabulungi must deliver lines about the center of Mormonism such as "where flies don't bite your eyeballs" and "now salvation has a name" with equal ease and poignancy.
"She has to live life the way it was given to her," said Ware during a phone interview. "She's a very free spirit and believes she can find paradise and that's what makes her so innocent and naive. It's what makes us all want to love her."
The critics certainly love Ware. The Los Angeles Daily News called her "luminous," while the Orange County Register applauded her "pure, piercing voice" as "the best of the ensemble." And Times theater critic Charles McNulty hailed her as "the production's breakout star."
For Ware, who has been performing in theater since a small role in "A Christmas Carol" as an 8-year-old, her solo song was the hardest scene to master.
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"I'm on stage by myself and I'm very vulnerable," she said. "It's just me and the audience and it can feel like they are judging me. So it took me a while to feel comfortable enough with myself to just tell the story to them because that's what they are there for."
Before she was asked to audition for the role, originally played on Broadway by Nikki M. James, Ware was in the Las Vegas production of "The Lion King," a work whose simplistic and rose-colored vision of Africa is mercilessly mocked in explicitly graphic "The Book of Mormon." For example, the song "Hasa Diga Eebowai" expresses in unprintable language the Ugandan villagers' attitude toward their daily struggle with AIDS, random violence and squalid living conditions — and is an obvious swipe at "The Lion King's" carefree anthem "Hakuna Matata."
After winning the role in January, Ware went on to perform the "Mormon" role for about six weeks on Broadway this spring. Later, she workshopped with Stone and Parker to hone her character before the start of the touring production, which will be at the Pantages until Nov. 25 and then moves on to San Francisco and 14 other cities.
"I was really playing Nabulungi as too grown up," said Ware. "Matt really helped me to find my inner innocence."
Until "Mormon," Ware didn't know much about the "South Park" creators — apart from her brother Christopher's frequent quoting from the raunchy Comedy Central cartoon. So, when she read the script, Ware was surprised by its "edginess," especially its often blasphemous take on religion.
"I'm a religious person," she said. "I believe there is a God and all that jazz, but when I'm on stage I'm playing a character. It's easy to take my work and place it at a different level than who I really am."
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