Disciples of Pop Croon and Bop to Save the Masses
by Charles Isherwood


They croon, they flirt, they glide and hop and bop in perfect synchronicity. Oh, and they also praise the Lord.


The boy band is dead, it is said, victim of the fickle hearts of teenage girls. Thus the arrival Off Broadway of "Altar Boyz," a sweetly satirical show about a Christian pop group made up of five potential Teen People cover boys, raises a thorny question: Is the musical theater where pop music goes to die?


Let's table that one for now, actually. The talented actors impersonating the honey-voiced, swivel-hipped believers in "Altar Boyz" would certainly be able to convince you otherwise, for one thing. Their ebullient performances ensure that this smoothly executed show, which might have been a quick-fizzling joke, is an enjoyably silly diversion. "Altar Boyz," which opened last night at Dodger Stages, first appeared at the 2004 New York Musical Theater Festival. Staking no claims to artistic significance, it makes a nice sound, looks pretty (if you like pretty boys) and sends you home with a smile.


Devout Christians are not the target audience here, unless they share the show's authors' view that there is something absurd about proselytizing for religion through pop music. True fans of Christian rock and pop could reasonably take offense at the sly parodies cooked up by the skilled songwriters Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, with winking choruses like, "Girl, you make me want to wait."


But the material is delivered with such a light touch that I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some of the catchier tunes had won a following among the young faithful. The songs' tongue-in-cheek lyrics come wrapped in smoothly funky synthesizer riffs, and they are sung with a sincerity that softens the sting.


As with singing groups like 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, packaged for pop stardom by canny music producers, the crush-worthy guys in "Altar Boyz" (note the biblical names) are a culturally assorted group designed to cater to the widest possible demographic. Well, the widest variety of young women and gay men, anyway.


Luke (Andy Karl) is the tough one, the hip-hoppin' homeboy, with his baseball cap fixed precisely askew, arms doing the monkey-lope at his sides. Juan (Ryan Duncan) is the "ethnic" one who leads the driving Latin-sound number. Abraham (David Josefsberg) is - gosh! - the Jewish one. (Mom's not pleased, he sheepishly admits.) The supermodel-skinny Mark (Tyler Maynard) is the sensitive one.


Mark is so sensitive, in fact, that he can't keep his gleaming eyes from fixing with rapt ardor on the group's fifth member, Matthew (Scott Porter). Matthew doesn't have any particular distinction. He doesn't need any. As the lead singer, he's the super-cute one, with the glass-cutting jaw line and the sculptured arms.


The show, conceived by Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport and directed by Stafford Arima, is staged as a concert. The audience members are cast as fans in attendance at the first New York gig for this harmonizing quintet, bent on bringing us into the light of true belief. Kevin Del Aguila's throwaway book, which mostly consists of patter and pseudo-autobiographical chitchat, also makes use of a contrived device that gives the show a slender, narrative pulse: a magical machine at the corner of the stage that registers the number of still-unsaved souls in the audience. The Altar Boyz won't quit until it's down to zero.


Never mind. The songs are the show's substance. In a dozen numbers, Mr. Adler and Mr. Walker lend variety to the central conceit by cycling through several Top 40 musical styles. The motivating joke is the juxtaposition of the Boyz' hipster homey-speak and their wholesome message: "We know that God is where it's at," they sing in "Rhythm in Me," "because we think he's real phat."


In a silky ballad titled "The Calling," they meditate on the duties of the blessed: "Jesus called me on my cellphone/No roaming charges were incurred/He told me that I should go out in the world/And spread his glorious word." A deliciously funny rap number, in which Jesus' miracles are detailed over a galloping bass line, is another highlight.


All the guys have terrific voices and nimble limbs. (The choreography by Christopher Gattelli pays energetic homage to the athletic gyrations of boy-band music videos.) And each one gets a moment to linger in the solo spotlight. Mr. Porter, naturally, leads the love ballad, "Something About You," a palpitating ode to abstinence sung to an audience volunteer.


But it's Mr. Maynard who stops the show. His Mark combines the aggressive pep of an overgrown Mouseketeer with the mincing officiousness of "Queer Eye's" Carson Kressley. He's the most fully shaped character, and Mr. Maynard's daffy performance is the sharpest of the night.


Mark's "Epiphany," sung with all the high-octane flourishes dear to the hearts of "American Idol" lovers, is a passionate anthem celebrating the soul-liberating feeling of accepting who you are. But Mark doesn't "come out" in quite the way we anticipate, and this sly and funny subversion of our expectations constitutes the musical's lone, gently delivered political statement. It suggests that the Christian credo of love and acceptance, made manifest in the boys' soothing harmonies, has a strictly defined limit.