ALTAR BOYZ VARIETY REVIEW
by David Rooney
Bummed that the Backstreet Boys are no more? Feeling sunk that 'N Sync came 'nstuck? Taken ill since Take That took their leave? Then give thanks to the Lord because the "Altar Boyz" are here, saving souls and spreading the word while adhering religiously to the sacred commandments of the boy-band creed. Never mind that the one-joke show is as disposable as the innocuous pop phenomenon it apes to perfection. This breezy entertainment makes no claims to enter the musical theater pantheon, but is an energetic crowdpleaser that should stick around Off Broadway for some time.
One of the unqualified hits of last fall's New York Musical Theater Festival, the modestly scaled show about a Christian boy band has been expediently repackaged for a commercial run with all but one of its original cast returning. Cheyenne Jackson, who created the role of Matthew -- the Justin Timberlake Justin Timberlake of the equation -- opted out for the lead in "All Shook Up," with Scott Porter ably stepping into his shoes.
Kevin Del Aguila's book stitches together a minimal plot, placing the action on the final night of the Boyz' national Raise the Praise Tour in New York. The Sony-sponsored group seeks to bring God to their public with the aid of a gizmo called the Soul Sensor DX-12, which counts down the diminishing number of lost souls in the theater as the concert/show progresses.
Along the way, personal revelations and collective experiences emerge as the Boyz illustrate the birth of the Greenville, Ohio, vocal group and the way it grew. ("Don't say 'evolved.'")
In addition to frontman Matthew, played by Porter with earnest Tom Cruise Tom Cruise-y wholesomeness, the Boyz consist of tirelessly perky blonde Mark (Tyler Maynard), patently in love with Matthew and gay in every way possible without verbalizing it; doltish faux homeboy Luke (Andy Karl), recently released from the New Horizon Rejuvenation Center after a bout of "exhaustion"; fiery Tijuana foundling child Juan (Ryan Duncan), adopted by the group as he searches for his birth parents; and Abraham (David Josefsberg), a Jew dude who advocates heeding the call, "even if God's plan doesn't make a lotta sense to you... or your mother."
The thinly padded show doesn't boast a lot of modulation and can't match the cheeky Christian youth satire of last year's indie comedy "Saved!" (itself a natural for musicalization). And some of the jokes are a little hoary (Juan's Hispanic-accented "bringing God's message to Jew," his ass/donkey double entendres).
But the clever-cute lyrics of Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker's songs, the witty athleticism of Christopher Gattelli's MTV-authentic choreography and the exuberance of the five talented performers are nothing if not disarming.
Whether red-state God squads will find their way to Dodger Stages to be offended seems unimportant, given the show's harmless ribbing of Christian crusaders is entirely good-natured. And its message of unity ("There is no star as bright as its constellation, no harmony in a single voice") offers a comforting embrace.
Each of the Boyz takes his turn in the spotlight, often deftly appropriating a different pop idiom. Matthew plucks a babe to serenade from the audience in "Something About You," sweetly crooning the refrain, "Girl, you make me wanna wait," coated in syrupy harmonies. Juan delivers the pulsating Ricky Martinesque "La Vida Eternal"; Luke mixes hip hop, gospel and James Brown-styled funk in "Body, Mind & Soul"; and Abraham gets backup from Lambchop-type hand puppets on "Everybody Fits."
The soulful showstopper is Mark's 11 o'clock ballad (albeit at 9:15 in this tight one-act), "Epiphany," a hilarious Catholic coming-out in which he recaps growing up among Episcopalian thugs, being ridiculed for "my voice, my walk, my attention to detail." The big-build song ends with an amusing musical nod to "And I Am Telling You, I'm Not Going" from "Dreamgirls."
While there's not an unappealing member or a less-than-terrific vocalist in the hard-working cast, Maynard steals every scene as Mark with his way-too-enthusiastic choreography, his sassy showgirl moves and his coy swooning at Matthew. The actor's mock-innocent facial expressions and sly comic timing are a constant delight.
Stafford Arima directs at an appropriately breathless pace that keeps the fluffy show from succumbing to its lack of substance. Anna Louizos' simple design has the five-piece band upstage beneath an underused catwalk, while Gail Brassard's snug costumes strike the right note of H&M meets Abercrombie & Fitch youthfulness. As befits a Christian crew, the buff lads bare far less flesh than their popular boy-band prototypes.
Natasha Katz's lighting mimics stadium rock concerts, making droll use of fog machines and fans in the show's big exorcism song, "Number 918," replete with snatches from "Tubular Bells" and a dance break followed by the intonation, "The power of Christ compels you." Auds looking for fun and not troubled by lack of complexity should be happily compelled by "Altar Boyz."