Orlando was the epicenter of the turn-of-the-century boy-band craze, so it's fitting that the Altar Boyz are winding down their nationwide tour of "bingo halls and youth group rallies" here at Theatre Downtown. You may not have heard of this nearly famous quintet, but their synthetic songs and pop-archetype personas will be instantly familiar.
In Theatre Downtown's production, the fictitious group's songwriter and leader is Matthew (Spencer Morrow, who also choreographs), the all-American frontman destined for a Timberlake like solo career. Mark (Brandon Wood) is barely in the closet and sublimates his crush on a bandmate into lyrical double-entendres. Wild-eyed Luke (Adam DelMedico), fresh out of rehab for "exhaustion," represents for wannabe white rappers. Juan (Sheldon Gomabon), an orphan of ambiguous ethnicity, emerges as an angst-ridden Ricky Martin ripoff, and Abraham (Alexander Browne) hangs on as the slightly goofy fifth wheel. They're exactly like a half-dozen interchangeable acts Svengali-ed into fame and flameout by the likes of Lou Pearlman, except for one twist: They sing and dance to deliver souls to Jesus.
Altar Boyz was originally conceived by Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport for the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival. It has enjoyed a continuous Off-Broadway run since 2005, along with national tours and international productions. Director Steve MacKinnon's lively production proves why the show has earned its audiences and awards, with Kevin Del Aguila's book and Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker's songs packing wit and heart between belly laughs.
The story line may be slight but it's serviceable; in the course of their final concert, four Catholic boys (along with Abe, the token Hebrew) perform in order to draw their audiences away from the dark side, tracking the evangelical effort on a "Soul Sensor" digital scoreboard. In the process, they confess secrets and confront a crisis of faith over their future together. The brief book scenes feature some fiercely funny gags — the Rashomon-ized re-enactment of the group's genesis is a gas — but they are largely there to link a score stocked with spot-on satires of plastic pop and Papist dogma. The topics are targeted in tunes that include a crooning ballad advocating abstinence, a dance demonstrating the "Stand up! Kneel! Sit now! Genuflect!" Mass Macarena and even an "Up With Puppets" number.
From the opening moment, when a stagehand earned applause by crossing the stage with a smoke machine, MacKinnon's directorial instinct makes this comedy click, while Morrow's high-energy dance steps (filled with winking choreographic quotes) keep the cast hopping nearly nonstop for 80-plus intermissionless minutes. All five are polished performers; their collective theme-park experience proves evident in practiced plastic smiles. Morrow, a saving grace of Gramercy Theatre's High School Musical, is again a standout, along with Wood, who executed impressive vocal calisthenics despite an opening-night illness. Tom Mangieri provides the cathedral-meets-construction set design, and Kyle Ledford's lighting stretches the theater's capabilities to the limit with credible "flash and trash."
Altar Boyz makes clever and sometimes cutting commentary on faith and music while simultaneously being an exemplar of both. The head-bopping hooks and hermetically sealed harmonies would fit right in on top-40 radio, and the spirituality avoids both sanctimony and mean-spirited sacrilege. As another audience member remarked, with its broad appeal (Catholics, Jews, teens, gays) this could be a Nunsense for the under-80 firstname.lastname@example.org
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