Review: `Altar Boyz’

Opened Wednesday, March 14, 2007, Orpheum Theatre

Lightly satirical `Altar Boyz’ keeps the comic faith
Three stars In praise of peppy pop

And God said, “Anoint thy hair with product.’’ And so they did.

Five boys — four Christians and one Jewish lad – from Ohio who call themselves the Altar Boyz hit the road with an act full of faith-based pop and a mission to, in their words, “praise the Lord with funk and rhyme.’’

Oh, yes, and comedy. That’s the thing that separates the Altar Boyz from other boy bands – Christian or otherwise.

In the real world, the Altar Boyz might be taken seriously (and indeed, they do inspire slavish devotion from fans called Altarholics). But this band only exists in the very unreal world of musical theater.

Altar Boyz is the little off-Broadway musical that could. The show, conceived by Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport, with a book by Kevin Del Aguila and a score by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, just celebrated its second anniversary in New York. And on Wednesday, the national tour opened its N’SYNC-ish revival meeting at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre.

The premise is straightforward enough: the Christian boy band Altar Boyz has reached the final night of its Raise the Praise tour. With the help of a gizmo called the Soul Sensor DX-12, they’re going to count how many troubled, unsaved souls are in the audience. Through the magic of God and their funky fresh music, they’re going to bring that number (1,159 on opening night) down to zero.

The first two songs, “We Are the Altar Boyz’’ and “Rhythm in Me,’’ pretty much set the tone for the entire show with their amusing lyrics and hilariously accurate, Timberlakian choreography (by Christopher Gattelli).

“Now we don’t believe in hurtin’ or hatin’ ‘cause that’s the kind of stuff that leads to Satan,’’ the boys sing with utter earnestness.

Director Stafford Arima wisely plays it straight so the comedy never seems mean or blasphemous. But there is some bite to this pleasantly mushy pop.

In “The Calling,’’ the boys sing, “Jesus called me on my cell phone. No roaming charges were incurred.’’

The blend of show biz and religion is an intentional blur, and that uncomfortable (but familiar) marriage gives the show much of its forward momentum (with apologies to the ridiculous Soul Sensor).

So how do you make a cheesy-sincere boy band interesting for 90 minutes once you’ve seen all their attempts to incorporate crucifixion imagery into their dance moves?

While Adler and Walker’s songs (they trade off songwriting duties rather than collaborate on each tune) are the most interesting part of the show, Del Aguila’s book provides a few meaty morsels of plot and character.

Matthew (Matthew Buckner) is the dreamboat leader of the gang. He’s also the secret desire of Mark (Ryan J. Ratliff), the most fabulous member of the group (and the one the Rev. Ted Haggard, in a previous life, might relate most to).

Luke (Jesse JP Johnson) is the group’s hip-hopper. He’s done time in rehab for “exhaustion,’’ and his big number, “Body, Mind & Soul,’’ offers some phat crunking for the Lord.

Juan (Jay Garcia) is a Mexican orphan with a Spanish accent who’s about to discover the truth about his birth parents.

And Abraham (Ryan Strand, wearing a T-shirt that says, “Everybody Loves a Jewish Boy’’), is the lyricist who joined the band by divine accident.

Fro the sake of variety, this “concert’’ offers up a salsa number (“La Vida Eternal’’), an exorcism (“Number 918’’), a coming out (as a Catholic) anthem (“Epiphany’’), an ode to abstinence (“Something About You’’) and, though we don’t actually see the Lamb of God, we do get five Lambchop hand puppets during “Everybody Fits.’’

The winning Boyz quintet handles the ultra-pop demands of the score more than ably, with Ratliff’s “Epiphany,’’ which blissfully quotes “I Am Woman’’ and Dreamgirls, taking best of show honors for its boffo combo of passion and humor.

By the final inspirational number, “I Believe,’’ the boys aren’t even singing about Jesus anymore. They’re singing to each other. So as much as Altar Boyz wants to be about faith and hypocrisy, it ends up being about fellowship and sweet, sweet boy band harmonies.

For information about Altar Boyz visit www.shnsf.com.

One thought on “Review: `Altar Boyz’

  1. Loved reading your review – glad you enjoyed the show. I laughed my ass off 90 minutes straight!

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