REVIEW: Musical spoof treads lightly through rock and religion

Altar Boyz/ Theater Barn

IF THE WHOLE IDEA of a religious rock concert makes you gag, worry not. The songs of “Altar Boyz” have the thump, electronic twang and almost enough decibels for rock, but you can actually understand lyrics (mostly sassy and clever) and also preserve your ears for future use.

Most of the time you may be uncertain whether the show’s point of view is anti-Christian satire in sheep’s clothing or youth-drenched, energetic evangelism. Reverence is not much in evidence, yet the sunshiny delivery of five very talented actors is likely to appease believers. Innocence abounds with the sass. The boyz often seem as if they are 25 going on 5. That may sound awful, but it’s actually rather charming. In any case, atheist and believer will each have something to nibble on.

In the final analysis, it’s a series of theater songs with some nice vocal arrangements graced with tight harmonies and cheeky words. (On opening night there were some very sloppy modulations from the boyz, but by the time you see the show, I’m sure there will have been some rigorous cleanup rehearsals.) Lyrics include “Jesus called me on my cell phone,” an exorcism demand to “Get the Hell out,” pop optimism with “The old guy [God] is makin’ a comeback,” and a light-hearted spoof of Catholic mass rituals.

Music and lyrics are by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker. The book is by Kevin Del Aguila. The show was conceived by Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport. That’s a lot of authors. One can imagine that they all sat down (pre-authorship) to make a list of every commercially viable, 21st century PC cliché they could think of.

First and foremost is ethnic and sexual-orientation diversity. The characters include a wholesome leader guy, an adorable gay guy, a deliciously dumb refugee from reform school, a gorgeous, virile and sentimental Latino, and a smart Jew. (Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and Abraham). After lots of religion-spoofing, we get some familiar back stories from the Latino and the gay guy. (Tugs at the heartstrings are required in a musical, so that element is tossed in.) The authors may thank super-duper performances from Barry Shafrin as the gay guy and Eddie Maldonado as the Latino for pulling off these moments, which could have landed with their clichés showing.

Geez, we need a couple of ballads, the authors must have said, and “Something About You” emerged with its eyes on the abstinence-only DVD market. (That is, if a singer can keep a straight face.) It is sung impressively straight by Trey Compton in a child-like pop voice. His is the most difficult role, and whoever plays it is probably prey to blandness. Maldonado (as Juan) and Steven Cardona (as Abraham), on the other hand, get to spoof political correctness while they do political correctness. And they succeed.

Tom Garruto’s Luke is the most hilarious, dumb-innocent, white-guy imitation of a black rapper you could wish for. He’s the top dancer, and the eye is drawn to him in many numbers. Cardona and Maldonado win the voice sweepstakes. In another context, one can imagine them at ease in an art song or a ’40s ballad.

Throughout most of the show, the major thrust has been the saving of audience souls as monitored by neon numbers at the side of the stage. In a late switch, the authors offer a moderately serious morality lesson to top off the show. The sentimental virtues of group solidarity take over in a quick conflict and a quick resolution. Poor Abraham is asked to carry this change-of-pace burden. When the group celebrates togetherness singing “I Believe,” and the words suggest that all five of the boyz have given up six-figure solo gigs… I didn’t believe. Although smart-ass gay sensibility can get wearisome, its clever return here would have been welcome. Thank heavens, the Bible gets a light pinch when Jewish Abraham turns out to be the only one who has not betrayed the Jesus group.

An intelligent decision has been made to keep lighting and costumes simple, and the stagehand walking across the stage punching a mini-fog machine is a sweet comment on maxi-produced rock concerts.

Choreography is dance-class mundane, but what can you do when half the stage is occupied by instrumentalists? Still, I’ll be happy if nevermore do I see side-to-side step-touch, step-touch, step-touch, step-touch, step-touch…. Fortunately, the boyz know how to move so, once again, the performers save the creative team.

For tickets, call theater barn at (518) 794-8989.

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