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A CurtainUp Review

Altar Boyz
By Brad Bradley

Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, Abraham; (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Altar Boyz calls itself "a new musical about a struggling Christian boy-band riding the wave of Americas latest fascination with religion." With all the pre-show hooting and hollering from the audience each of several times the cast was promised onstage in an announced number of minutes, I expected to be in for an evening of contemporary pop music with all the usual excessively pulsating sound and barked lyrics; this expectation was duly reinforced when the cast finally appeared in the modest theater at Dodger Stages all equipped with face mikes like those first noted when Rent hit local stages nearly a decade ago. However, and happily, the sound level became no problem, the show was unmitigated fun, and the religious theme never got in the way of the entire audiences having a good time, regardless of an apparently wide range in individual spiritual commitments or lack of same.

The dramatic premise as seen by co-conceivers Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport and as executed through the wonderfully adept direction of Stafford Arima heavily exploits the heavy irony of young men mostly attired to emphasize their streetwise acuity, and even implies one or more of them may have a past acquaintance with teen gang crimes. Their opening number, the eponymous declaration "We are the Altar Boyz" displays an assertiveness that could go in any direction. However, we soon learn that the chief agenda of their performances is one of saving souls (namely those of the assembled audience) and that the Boyz manner of doing so is altogether playful and gentle, in refreshing contrast to the initially rougher visual and auditory images given the audience by their attire as well as by the heavily amplified onstage band behind them.

The charming cast of five works wonderfully together, and unsurprisingly they take the names of key Biblical figures, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and, for the more ethnic elements in the audience, Juan and even Abraham (another nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn welcomed to the theater district this winter). All the characters, most notably these latter two, are little more than cliche cartoon stereotypes, but their funky informality overcomes any limitations therein, and their musical performances are fabulously enriched by the choreography of Christopher Gattelli, who misses no opportunity to use every aspect of the energy, athletic ability, and dance technique to keep this fine quintet of performers in nearly perpetual motion.

Part of the ensemble's success accrues from a series of refreshingly devoted interactions of Hollywood Hunk Matthew with his diverse cronies. Their onstage sincerity happily delivers a warming message of brotherly love that transcends any sectarian particulars, and brings to mind Godspell, a megahit from the early 1970's with its own off-Broadway pedigree and Biblical borrowings. Some members of this cast seem to be limited in their vocal strengths, although all are more than adept at the considerable movement and comic challenges of the material. One breakout performance by Tyler Maynard as Mark stops the show cold. Maynard, suggesting a pint-sized version of Tommy Tune at his own breakout 70's era appearance in "Seesaw", deserves an enduring run as a musical attraction. Andy Karl, as Luke, modeled as an derivative of the Travolta Italian stallion icon in Saturday Night Fever, also wins over the audience entirely.

Gary Adler and Michael PatrickWalker's music is always serviceable (apparently not written in collaboration; consult your program to learn who wrote which songs), and often is rousing as well. Their also shared lyrics are fast, sometimes too much so for comprehension, although the rhymes and double entendres, often unexpected, keep us listening carefully and have heaps more to offer than the current "catalog" musicals on Broadway. The book by Kevin Del Aguila is economical and simple as it should be, allowing the performers to shine in their largely concert format and have fun along with the audience.(Yes, there is a notable bit of audience participation which persuades a young female onstage; it works wonderfully and stops short of excess.)

The production support is strong on all counts, especially the versatile lighting of Natasha Katz and the audience-friendly sound design by Simon Matthews. All creators seem to have been on the same page here, making Altar Boyz is that rare show that several generations can enjoy together.
Altar Boyz
Book by Kevin Del Aguila
Music/Lyrics: Gary Adler & Michael Patrick Walker
Director: Stafford Arima
Choreographer: Christopher Gattelli
Musical direction by Lynne Shankel
Cast: Ryan Duncan (Juan), David Josefsberg (Abraham), Andy Karl (Luke),Tyler Maynard (Mark), Scott Porter (Matthew)
Set Design: Anna Louizos
Costume Design: Gail Brassard
Lighting Design: Natasha Katz
Sound Design: Simon Matthews
Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission.
Dodger Stages, 340 West 50th Street.
Tuesday through Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 and 8 PM, Sunday at 3 and 7 PM.
From 2/15/05; opening 3/01/05.
Viewed by Brad Bradley at the February 25th preview performance.
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