The San Pedro Playhouse’s Altar Boyz is a sly, often hilarious evening of theater (though I’ll leave it to a press agent to add the terms “heavenly” and “divine”). The conceit is that a fresh-faced Christian boy band — the titular Boyz — has finally made it to San Antonio on its “Raise the Praise” tour: and judging from the number of souls requiring salvation in the Alamo City, the Boyz clearly have their work cut out for them. Throughout a set of some 13 songs, Altar Boyz deftly satirizes media-friendly evangelicalism, at the same time skewering archetypal boy bands, including such throwbacks as ’N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. For starters, there’s the Charismatic Heartthrob, the Media-Shy Substance Abuser, the Token Minority, the Amiable Genius, and the Obvious Closet Case (Lance Bass, we’re looking at you). Set to a dance- and boy-friendly score by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker (with a book by Kevin del Aguila), Altar Boyz is easily the most enjoyable and accomplished musical I’ve seen on the Playhouse’s Russell Hill Rogers stage.
That’s partly because — to be frank — the main-stage shows tend to include casts of dozens, with the talent level declining precipitously after the first handful of actors. With just five thespians, however, Altar Boyz is compulsively watchable, even if occasionally uneven. One can glean something of the charm of the evening — as well as its surprisingly subversive subtext — from the staging of the rousing anthem “Rhythm in Me,” a tuneful glorification of God’s inspiration. As the song nears its climax (the perfect word, given the obscenely gyrating choreography), the queen-iest member of the quintet implores the Lord to “Put it in me! Put it in me!” — while making abundantly clear which part of his anatomy should receive divine favor. The song thus morphs instantly, and comically, from the inspirational to the sodomitical, and that sort of theatrical whiplash resurfaces as a leitmotif throughout the evening. Just when things seem to be getting too sappy — as when a certain member of the group celebrates a very special birthday — the authors spring a devastating revelation, one that unceremoniously deflates the Pollyanna worldview of pop-rock boyhood, and reveals, if only for an instant, that even Boyz will have face the realities of life beyond the wicked (or the holy) stage.
A boy band lives and dies by its perfectly synchronized dancing, and Christopher Rodriguez’s clever choreography contributes a number of sight gags while working within the idiom of slick, video-ready moves (my favorite moments involved a four-beat impersonation of Christ-Asphyxiating-On-The-Cross, a sequence not likely to enter the Joffrey vocabulary of dance). The execution of the choreography, however, wasn’t as precise as it needed to be — a few brush-up rehearsals would give the Boyz the proper razor-sharp steps. As a director, Rodriguez is generally fine at handling the book scenes; he’s especially nimble at finding the appropriately clichéd mood for a song, including the sultry homage to abstinence, “Something About You.” (This spoof begins with the Boyz portentously swaying on stools, a scene dramatically backlit by William J. Stewart. Copulation is no dancing matter.)
As the Boyz, the standouts are Rick Sanchez as the swishy, flamboyant Mark (whose bits of homoerotic stage business were, alas, occasionally lost in the cavernous auditorium), and Michael J. Gonzalez as the savvily marketed, heavily-accented incarnation of John (“Juan”). Walter Songer cannily impersonates a hip and hip-hopping white boy (“Luke”), while Ryan Ramirez holds his own as Abraham, the lone, co-opted Jew. Miguel Ochoa (“Matthew”) doesn’t radiate the Justin Timberlake-esque charisma that the role requires, but he’s touchingly candid and authentically boyish. Andrew Hendley leads an on-stage, five-man band through a score of catchy altar noiz.
I first caught Altar Boyz a few years ago in Manhattan (where it’s still playing Off-Broadway), and so had a fairly firm recollection of its plot and structure; but my companion at the Playhouse was an Altar Boyz virgin and so had difficulty making out the clever lyrics, due to a clearly inadequate sound system. (A plea for donations for a renovated apparatus hangs in the lobby of the Playhouse; but in the meantime, caveat auditor.) The technical imperfections aren’t a deal-breaker, however: If you’ve a hankering for a breezy, 90-minute send-up of contemporary culture, feel free to welcome these Boyz to the ’hood. They are Good News, indeed. •
Through Feb 22
San Pedro Playhouse