It hasn't been a banner year for musicals, on Broadway or off. This season, trudging to show after turgid show in hopes of finding one new entry that will capture the wonder of musical theatre at its finest has frequently seemed too heavy a cross to bear.
All the more reason to celebrate the rapturous return of Altar Boyz. The first bona fide smash of the first New York Musical Theatre Festival, it quickly sold out its brief run in a tiny theater and then closed, leaving word of mouth (from the fortunate few who saw it) to percolate over the following months. This kept alive interest in the show, but set up two major potential problems: Could the show live up to its hype? And would it be just as good the second time around?
Now that the show has re-opened, this time at Dodger Stages, it can be definitively said: The answer to the first question remains a resounding yes. The answer to the second is an equally resounding no. It's not just as good.
Composers Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker and librettist Kevin Del Aguila wisely chose not to fix what wasn't broken when revising their hilarious yet respectful show (conceived by Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport) about a Christian boy band at the end of its national soul-saving tour. They, with the help of keen-eyed director Stafford Arima, have streamlined and mainstreamed the show, sanding down its sharper corners and shoring up the few moments that didn't play optimally.
The four members of the cast recreating their NYMF roles have done the same. Tyler Maynard has polished his portrayal of super-sensitive (okay, effeminate) Mark; Andy Karl has ratcheted up the rebellious energy of his streetwise Luke; Ryan Duncan has injected more Latin and more lover into his lady-killer, Juan; and David Josefsberg more subtly points up the comic ironies inherent in his character Abraham, the group's Jewish member.
In addition, newcomer Scott Porter is much more effective as the group's heartthrob leader Matthew than the role's originator, Cheyenne Jackson. While Jackson capitalized on his toned chorus-boy softness, Porter uses his considerably rougher edges to give the show the raw, sexy, and charismatic anchor it desperately needed the first time around.
Also noteworthy is the expanded physical production: 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.)
While the show's story is at best nominal - the Boyz have reached New York, the final stop of their tour, and don't know what the future holds - the actors all bring an unshakable conviction to what they're doing, selling for all they're worth the songs and banter between them that establish vibrant, lovable characters with rich relationships: Juan's desperate to find the parents he never knew; Luke yearns to make good to make up for a troubled youth; Mark's struggling with feelings toward Matthew he apparently doesn't quite understand.
Yes, some songs cover expected musical theatre territory: The Boyz sing of their hopes to connect with young audiences ("We Are the Altar Boyz"), explain the origin of their religious and musical values ("[God Put the] Rhythm in Me"), and instruct audiences in proper behavior while worshipping ("Church Rulez"). There's even a number in which they furiously try to cleanse the audience of its few remaining sins.
But it's the character-heavy moments you remember most: How Juan, at his lowest point, derives from God inhuman stamina when singing the Ricky Martin-ish "La Vida Eternal." How Abraham comes to accept his role as a fish out of water ("Everybody Fits"). How Mark summons up a dazzling array of Broadway divas for his dynamic showstopper "Epiphany," about how he's coped with persecution in his own life. These men truly are as devoted to God as they are to their music.
Such layers make phony pop proselytizing in shows like Brooklyn seem even shallower. Unabashed, honest feelings about most subjects (especially religious ones) are rare in today's musicals; recent shows like Avenue Q or The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee possess numerous virtues, but can't (or won't?) embrace audiences as fully as the best musical comedies must. Everything Altar Boyz does comes from its heart and soul, whether it makes you laugh or cry.
And it certainly can evoke tears, particularly in the finale, "I Believe." As written and staged, the song is a stirring affirmation of God and friendship; as performed, it's cathartic on an additional level, seemingly offering as much praise to musical theatre as it is to a Higher Power. At last we have something genuinely worthy of such praise. If you've lost faith in the American musical comedy, Altar Boyz will make you believe again.