ALTAR BOYZ THEATERMANIA REVIEW
by David Finkle
It's not often that a perfect musical floats into town, so audiences are urged to grab Altar Boyz immediately, even though the show is so out-and-out terrific that it's likely to hang on for years in Manhattan and spawn companies in every large-, medium-, and small-sized burg throughout the land. Maybe the five-actor, four-musician show handily achieves perfection in every department because God the Father is rumored to be without flaw and this smart-as-a-whip tuner is a satirical plug for Him plus the other two thirds of the Holy Trinity.
The simple, elegant premise is that the five members of a Christian boy group are determined to cleanse sinners' souls on the last leg of their "Raise the Praise" tour. With the help of a tracking device called the Soul Sensor DX-12, the hip and hip-hopping quintet vows to rejuvenate every soul in the audience through a series of invigorating songs and exercises. Among the latter is a "Confession Sessions" sequence during which the boyz respond to questions that audience members have supposedly written on index cards.
The guys are Matthew (Scott Porter), Mark (Tyler Maynard), Luke (Andy Karl), Juan (Ryan Duncan), and Abraham (David Josefsberg). While carrying on their altruistic crusade, they take time to reveal how they originally bonded (despite Abraham's being Jewish). Eventually, they face an 11th-hour crisis that jeopardizes their staying together. (It has nothing to do with the loss of commercial interest in boy groups.) Before they get the number of needy souls in the crowd down to zero, the foundling Juan learns the whereabouts of his parents. That's all you need to know of the show before sitting back to enjoy its multitudinous delights and surprises, which arrive every other second. (Wait for the hand puppets.) Well, "sitting back" isn't an accurate description, since the piece has such magnetism that patrons are drawn to the edge of their seats and are compelled to bop along with the music. Anyone who can laugh at the eccentricities of religious fervor and is ready to chortle over boy-group clichés is guaranteed to fall in love with Altar Boyz, no questions asked.
But a reviewer wants to tick off the scores of reasons why Altar Boyz is so damned good (that is, if a show about salvation can be called "damned"). In the beginning, there's the concept -- courtesy of Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport -- which begat the Kevin Del Aguila libretto and the songs by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker. Perhaps the greatest triumph of Del Aguila's book is that, while almost every line is a laugh-getter, the playwright has created amusingly disparate three-dimensional characters to propel the action; Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham are types but not stereotypes. Del Aguila mocks with an ever-so-light touch the skewed values that often are hallmarks of religious fervor today, yet not once during this 90-minute musical sermon does he sermonize.
As for the Adler-Walker score, the first thing to be said about it is this: Every single one of the dozen numbers is melodic and funny. (Incidentally, Adler and Walker didn't collaborate but contributed six ditzy ditties each.) Part of the songs' power is that the ideas behind them are unexpected; they catch you off guard with lyrics like "Jesus called me on my cell phone." In an 'N Sync-like love song promoting sexual abstinence, the boyz sing, "Something about you, baby girl / You make me want to wait." Not since Urinetown have tunesmiths contrived to mock genres in such an entertaining way while simultaneously honoring them. Were this still a time when Top-10 recording artists and shrewd A&R people searched musical comedy scores for hits, Altar Boyz would yield a handful.
Of course, terrific songs and lines of dialogue are only as good as those singing and speaking them. In this light, Altar Boyz is five times blessed. Ryan Duncan, David Josefsberg, Andy Karl, Tyler Maynard, and Scott Porter all have voices that would score huge vote tallies on American idol. (There's a Clay Aiken joke somewhere in the proceedings, and he should only be as talented as these guys!) Furthermore, the show's creators have seen to it that each of the boyz gets his own smashing solo spot. The willowy, immensely impressive Maynard as Mark is especially effective when singing about being a Catholic and liking it. On Anna Louizos's streamlined set with catwalk, the cast members are beautifully guided by director Stafford Arima and choreographer Christopher Gattelli, both of whose marketability will skyrocket as a result of their accomplishments here. Gattelli's nearly non-stop dances, impeccably executed by the stamina-stoked cast, is the season's best so far and by far. Cheers also for lighting designer Natasha Katz's razzle-dazzle displays and Simon Matthews' fine sound design.
In a script that contains no priest jokes but does include numerous voiceover appearances by radio jock Shadoe Stevens as "G.O.D.," librettist Del Aguila manages not only to generate constant laughs but also to come up with a genuinely touching, even spiritual conclusion. Saints be praised for a show this polished and potent.