Local young actor is currently touring
with the hit show “Book of Mormon”
“Hello!” is the opening number of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Book of Mormon.” Clean-cut, smiling young men with name badges, missionaries for their church, ring imaginary doorbells and introduce themselves enthusiastically in song.
Well into the song and clearly late, Elder Cunningham bumbles into the scene, off sync and out of step – and gets the first of many enormous laughs from the audience. Flustered, not very devout and in no way as confident as his fellow missionaries, he will be paired with Elder Price, who is his opposite in every way. They will be sent to make converts – in Uganda. This disaster-prone character is one of funniest of the musical.
Since June, Chad Burris of Van Buren has played or stood ready to play Elder Cunningham in the touring company of “Book of Mormon.” Hired after a New York audition to be a stand-by performer, Chad has stepped into the lead role several times, most recently for a seven-week run in Houston. At 22, he is the youngest member of his cast.
Even after eight months with the show and plenty of performances, he is still astonished to be living his dream, although he was determined to do it. When he entered the waiting room for his audition, he said, he called his father back in Arkansas in a combination of panic and bravado.
“I told my dad I had never seen so many chubby guys who looked just like me,” Chad said, describing his competition. “I told him, ‘They don’t understand. I bought a plane ticket and I am going to go in there and make it work! This has to happen!’”
It did work. The producers liked him so much they hired him to be a standby Elder Cunningham, even though they did not have an immediate opening in their two touring companies.
The long list of people who are not as surprised at Chad’s success starts with his parents, Nancy and Jay Burris, and include his Alma High School drama teachers and directors of the Young Actors Guild, where he began.
“Little did I know,” recalled Heather Breed Steadham, who cast an elementary-aged Chad as Linus in his first musical, “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.”
“He had been in some of our straight shows. And if not onstage, he had worked backstage,” said Steadham, a former director for the Young Actors Guild. “I didn’t know then if he could sing.”
In fact, Chad had once been the dog wrangler for a production of “Annie,” responsible for getting Sandy the dog on and offstage. One night, Sandy was sick in his crate and Chad tried to hose out the cage. It made him sick, too, she laughed. He paid the price to be in show business.
But when he sang “My Blanket & Me” as a solo in Charlie Brown, Heather said she realized, “He has ‘it.’”
His parents knew he had “it” even before his debut on the King Opera House stage. Their son had been doing what the family called “The Chad Burris Show,” using their fireplace hearth as his stage, from about the age of 2, his mother recalled. Even as a toddler, he would go on as long as anyone would watch.
Nancy and Jay have been extremely supportive of Chad’s love for theater and have the miles on their odometers to prove it. Chad spent almost every summer in a YAG play, which involved rehearsals in Fort Smith and Van Buren or at the Alma Performing Arts Center. (To a stage parent, show business feels a lot like being a taxi driver.)
They’ve done their best to nurture the interests of all their sons. Chad’s younger brother Alex likes musical theater and dance but favored athletics – he’s now a walk-on for the Arkansas Tech football team, planning on becoming a coach. Evan, the youngest, is an Alma High School senior bound for Arkansas Tech and an all-state football player.
At Alma High School, Chad excelled in its outstanding performing arts program before graduating in 2011 and enrolling in Ouachita Baptist University as a theater major.
In 2012, the last summer he was age-eligible for YAG productions, he took on the challenging lead role in “Les Miserables.” His cherubic face became bearded and grizzled; none of his comedic twinkle showed through in the tortured character of Jean Valjean, a man once imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving child.
“He was amazing,” recalled Brenda Yelvington, musical director for Les Miz. “Every time he showed up, the work he had done showed,” she said, praising his acting as well as his remarkable singing. “Then there is the funny Chad,” she said, recalling his hilarious turn, in drag, as Edna Turnblad in the musical comedy Hairspray, a role always played by men.
Chad turned to all his mentors when he learned there might be a chance to be cast in “Book of Mormon” through online auditioning.
“I started emailing the casting director,” Chad said. With Yelvington, a videographer, he performed a few well-prepared songs from the show on video and sent it to the casting director. Although she’s a pro, Yelvington let the tape look “just a little” amateur on purpose, she laughed.
That was June 2013. Then nothing happened, Chad said. He had returned to OBU for fall when he learned the show had called the college to set up an open casting call in state. But when he showed up, he was asked privately to tape another audition. The first video had gotten him noticed!
“Nine months later, after spring finals, I had gone home and was with my parents at my brother’s baseball game when they called and asked if I could be in New York for an audition – by Friday,” he said.
He was at the Arkansas Repertory Theater when he got the call he had been cast. He trained in New York for two weeks and joined the tour. Since then, he has been to Toronto and a string of major U.S. cities.
Chad was “called up” to perform for the first time while in Philadelphia. It happened to be when his dad and grandmother had flown in to see the show. Also in the audience was a fellow YAG alum who had been in Chad’s first musical. His mom and her mother, his brothers, many relatives and lots of friends have come to the show at cities along the tour, and so have his YAG directors and OBU professors. He is still enrolled there.
On nights when he is not onstage, he does homework online. He misses school. “Last May, I told all my friends I’d see them next year and then I never went back,” he said. “College is like a chapter I never closed.”
“Some people have a really hard time adjusting to tour life. I really enjoy it. I get a tour book every year that says where I’m going to go, where I’m going to stay – it is all done for you. My family says ‘you’re all grown up’ but I say I’m not, not really. Someone is still planning my day-to-day life. They take really good care of us.”
He also really enjoys the diversity of his cast, now his “show family” of about 40 actors, half of whom play the very disinterested Ugandans.
Raised in faith, Chad is cast well in this satirical, but not cynical, story. As the inept missionary, he realizes he must “Man Up” (his big number) to help the Africans and his discouraged mission partner find belief. Elder Cunningham’s sincerity, while unorthodox, helps to save the mission.
“It’s a play, not real life,” Chad said of the irreverent plot. “We’re acting!”
But in his performance, his former director Brenda Yelvington noted something more. “His faith in a higher power – it’s on his face.”
This article appears in the March 2015 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith magazine.