Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review of Altar Boyz at the Media Theatre

I didn’t need to go to church this weekend to get my religious fix. Instead of hearing a dry sermon and music struggling through creaky organ pipes, the Media Theatre’s production of Gary Adler’s and Michael Patrick Walker’s concert musical Altar Boyz spread the word of God in a fist-pumping, Bible-thumping good time (that like, totally kicked it, yo!).

Often billed as a “satirical look at both boy-bands and Christian-themed music,” the show opens on the last stop of the Altar Boyz national “Raise the Praise” tour. Here, five young singers—Matthew (Phillip Drennen), Mark (Michael Jennings Mahoney), Luke (Lee Markham), Juan (Adrian Gonzalez), and Abraham (Joey Contreras)—have descended on Media, wearing “bling for the King” and pledging to save souls through the glory of pop music.

Using the technology of the Sony Soul Sensor, a multimedia screen displays the number of audience members still burdened by sin. To bring that number down to zero, this Catholic quintet sings a message of staying pure (no matter how Mary Magdilicious she may be!), becoming the person you’re supposed to be, and living your life as a shout-out to G-O-D.

Of course, it’s silly, and I don’t know how their songs or lyrics would appeal to anyone, even true believers. But while I wouldn’t listen to the Back Street Boys for more than five minutes, the music and skits of this 90 minute performance put a smile on my face from the start.

It helps that the Media cast five incredibly talented performers, who not only each sing and harmonize beautifully, but also make Samuel Reyes constantly changing music-video choreography look easy. Even if the disciples had played music (and as the Son of God, Christ would’ve sung with perfect pitch), they wouldn’t have sounded this good. Mahoney finds his praise-voice with a rousing gospel-driven number, and late in the show, Markham drives home a weirdly entertaining rap song about Jesus’ miracles.

Their clean-cut looks outdo the Jonas Brothers, and costume designer Lauren Perigard only forgot to add the promise rings when dressing the group in super-skinny jeans and cargo pants, died t-shirts and vests, with plenty of the Lord’s bling (crosses) hanging from their necks. Adam Riggar’s set looks like the interior of a metallic cathedral, with arches and faux windows peering in on the band (Samuel Heifetz’s ability to shift seamlessly from musical theatre to urban pop amazes), and Kelly Michelle Leight’s lighting accentuates the concert feel.

But don’t worry, there’s enough humor and dark elements to strip the sheen from the sugar-coated pop and Jesus-saved-my-life anecdotes. Luke munches on communion wafers while discussing his stay in a “rejuvenation center,” Mark might be gay, and Juan suffers a personal tragedy about the parent’s who abandoned him.

Peter Reynolds' direction plays every note right, maximizing enjoyment through the boys tremendous musicality, lingering just long enough on the jokes, and not heavy-handing the satire (with a skit like “Cruci-funktion,” a disco account of The Passion, he doesn’t need to). The songs are cheesy, but the performers act so sincere that when the soul meter finally counted down to zero, the audience burst into spontaneous applause. But unlike church, the relief we felt didn’t come because the sermon had ended, but because we all felt a little bit saved by the power of theatre.

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