Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Altar Boyz


Music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, book by Kevin Del Aguila. Dir. Stafford Arima. Chor. Christopher Gattelli. Stage 4 of Dodger Stages (now New World Stages). (CLOSED)

Altar Boyz, a lovingly parodic musical about a Christian boy band, received almost across the board raves for its clever songs by Gary Adler, talented cast (especially Tyler Maynard), choreography by Christopher Gattelli, lighting design by Natasha Katz, and sound design by Simon Matthews. The show's weakest point seems to be the book, which according to many critics functions mostly as filler between songs. (The cast has gone through many, many replacements since opening.)

TheaterMania A+
(David Finkle) But a reviewer wants to tick off the scores of reasons why "Altar Boyz" is so damned good (that is, if a show about salvation can be called "damned"). In the beginning, there's the concept -- courtesy of Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport -- which begat the Kevin Del Aguila libretto and the songs by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker. Perhaps the greatest triumph of Del Aguila's book is that, while almost every line is a laugh-getter, the playwright has created amusingly disparate three-dimensional characters to propel the action; Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham are types but not stereotypes. Del Aguila mocks with an ever-so-light touch the skewed values that often are hallmarks of religious fervor today, yet not once during this 90-minute musical sermon does he sermonize. As for the Adler-Walker score, the first thing to be said about it is this: Every single one of the dozen numbers is melodic and funny. (Incidentally, Adler and Walker didn't collaborate but contributed six ditzy ditties each.) Part of the songs' power is that the ideas behind them are unexpected; they catch you off guard with lyrics like "Jesus called me on my cell phone." In an 'N Sync-like love song promoting sexual abstinence, the boyz sing, "Something about you, baby girl / You make me want to wait." Not since "Urinetown" have tunesmiths contrived to mock genres in such an entertaining way while simultaneously honoring them. Were this still a time when Top-10 recording artists and shrewd A&R people searched musical comedy scores for hits, Altar Boyz would yield a handful.

Talkin' Broadway A
(Matthew Murray) Anna Louizos's steel-frame set is a natural extension of the Dodger Stages look; Gail Brassard's costumes highlight the street and the heat the Boyz bring to the table; and Natasha Katz's hyperactive concert lighting is just right. So is Simon Matthews's sound design, which, loud but not unbearably so, makes it possible to better appreciate the music pounded out by the rocking four-piece band led by Lynne Shankel. But it's the synthesis of elements that sends a show soaring, and in "Altar Boyz" everything comes together with its stars. They never let you down--they're almost always onstage, singing terrifically and dancing tirelessly. (The practically non-stop choreography is the superb work of Christopher Gattelli, whose mixture of boy-band cliché and Christian iconography results in some of the funniest and most energetic moves seen onstage in several seasons.)

New York Daily News A
(Howard Kissel) Any show that contains a reference to a teenage outcast threatened by "Episcopalian thugs" automatically wins my heart. I have a weakness for silliness, and "Altar Boyz," a new musical about an evangelical boy band, overflows with it... Yes, "Altar Boyz" is a long joke. That's what musicals seem to be these days. With excellent direction and choreography, though, "Altar Boyz" keeps you laughing all evening long. A
(David Pumo) It’s a play. It’s a concert. It’s Altar Boyz, the new Christian boy band that’s come to save a few New York souls with ninety minutes of witty music, hot dancing, and way more laughs than I expected. It’s a tight, fun show that you can’t help but love... Well, there’s really nothing in "Altar Boyz" that should offend anyone. The religious content is about at the level of a Saturday morning cartoon, with the intellectual prowess of… well, a pop boy band. The show, in fact, pokes plenty of harmless fun at organized religion. The only message here is the power of love, acceptance, and great hair products.

New York Times A-
(Charles Isherwood) Staking no claims to artistic significance, it makes a nice sound, looks pretty (if you like pretty boys) and sends you home with a smile. Devout Christians are not the target audience here, unless they share the show's authors' view that there is something absurd about proselytizing for religion through pop music. True fans of Christian rock and pop could reasonably take offense at the sly parodies cooked up by the skilled songwriters Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, with winking choruses like, "Girl, you make me want to wait." But the material is delivered with such a light touch that I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some of the catchier tunes had won a following among the young faithful. The songs' tongue-in-cheek lyrics come wrapped in smoothly funky synthesizer riffs, and they are sung with a sincerity that softens the sting.

Newsday A-
(Gordon Cox) It's probably a little late to be poking fun at the boy-band phenomenon, and sometimes you can feel the show's creators straining to stretch their clever idea for a skit into a full 90 minutes. (The lamb puppets--as in Lamb of God--seem a little desperate.) The show, which chronicles the final New York City concert of the Boyz' "Raise the Praise" tour, is only as funny as its songs. Thank the Lord, then, that many of those songs are very funny indeed. Written by composer-lyricists Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, the tunes proclaim, "God put the rhythm in me so I could bust a move," and pepper a description of Jesus' miracles with the chorus, "Christ, how'd you do that?" A truly hilarious love song, whose gist is neatly summed up in the line "Girl, you make me wanna wait," almost redeems its pull-a-pretty-girl-onstage moment of audience participation.

CurtainUp B+
(Brad Bradley) Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker’s music is always serviceable (apparently not written in collaboration; consult your program to learn who wrote which songs), and often is rousing as well. Their also shared lyrics are fast, sometimes too much so for comprehension, although the rhymes and double entendres, often unexpected, keep us listening carefully and have heaps more to offer than the current "catalog" musicals on Broadway. The book by Kevin Del Aguila is economical and simple as it should be, allowing the performers to shine in their largely concert format and have fun along with the audience. (Yes, there is a notable bit of audience participation which persuades a young female onstage; it works wonderfully and stops short of excess.) The production support is strong on all counts, especially the versatile lighting of Natasha Katz and the audience-friendly sound design by Simon Matthews. All creators seem to have been on the same page here, making "Altar Boyz" that rare show that several generations can enjoy together.

NYMag B+
(Drew Pisarra) The jokes are broad; the characterizations, outlandish; the melodies, a 'N Sync pastiche. Yet with Christopher Gattelli’s witty, occasionally gymnastic choreography, this sweet-natured spoof can lift the spirits of even the most jaded theatergoer.

Time Out New York B-
(Adam Feldman) But while the songs in "Altar Boyz" are solid enough as pop pastiche, the plot is as thin as a communion wafer... Whether the show hold your attention for 90 minutes depends on how consistently amusing you find the central premise. I confess to wondering if it would work equally well as a commercial parody on Saturday Night Live, with funny song names scrolling across the screen. The Altar Boyz are clever creations, but the show's strict format gives them precious little room for evolution.

Village Voice B-
(Michael Feingold) The whole thing has been slickly staged by Stafford Arima, and Christopher Gattelli's choreography has a notably witty way of putting all the standard pop-group moves in comically nonstandard places, especially in a number with puppet lambs. The only real question involved is how funny—or how serious—you think it is to hear five cute boys singing "Jesus Called Me on My Cell Phone" and suchlike. I suppose it's a show to which ex-Catholic yuppies can take their hard-line parents from out of town, without either party getting angry. Better not tell the parents it's a spoof.

TheaterMania A+ 14; Talkin’ Broadway A 13; NY Daily News A 13; A 13; New York Times A- 12; Newsday A- 12; CurtainUp B+ 11; NYMag B+ 11; TONY B- 9; Village Voice B- 9; TOTAL: 117/10 = 11.7 (A-)

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