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Altar Boyz

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The most recent boy band craze may have already abated somewhat, but if we're not yet ready for a revival, one remaining group is enough for now. They're even starring in a new musical at the New York Musical Theatre Festival bearing the name of their group: Altar Boyz. If the show isn't quite flawless, at the very least it's wholly entertaining.

If you haven't been able to guess, this show - which was conceived by Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport, features songs by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, and has a thin thread of a book by Kevin Del Aguila - finally achieves the long-awaited (feared?) fusion of Christian music with the boy band phenomenon. Forget, for the most part, songs about love, sex, and other similar carnal pleasures: The Altar Boyz set their sights much, much higher.

The five guys hope to raise the consciousness of the audience members, and even help purify their souls; there's even a machine (complete with a digital readout) always present onstage to track their progress. Aside from this, there's very little additional story; there are threads about one member's longing to know more about his parents, and some generally good-natured rivalry between the five, but for all intents and purposes the show is the concert and the concert is the show.

That was probably a wise choice, as it allows something truly miraculous to happen: This one-joke show never once grows stale or tiresome during its 85-minute running time. It keeps presenting new facets to the guys' relationships, the ways they see the world, and their own personal performing styles; all this allows the show to constantly grow and reinvent itself. If nearly every song is a variation on that one joke - one song is a hip-hop interpretation of church behavior rules, another promotes sexual abstinence - the same variation never occurs twice.

More impressive still is the great reverence Adler, Walker, and Del Aguila show for religion. Yes, the songs' lyrics are insipid, but intentionally and ingratiatingly so ("We are the Altar Boyz and I think you'll find / We're gonna alter your mind" goes one typical passage in the band's theme song), and skewer little more than boy bands' surface-level interpretations of bigger issues. Only one line in the show - a crack about evolution - bears the faint aroma of being a cheap shot.

Other musicals with religion-themed subject matter - the recent pop opera Bare springs instantly to mind - don't seem to care about religion much beyond using it as a springboard to other issues; Altar Boyz practices what it preaches, down to the devotional (and genuinely moving) finale, "I Believe." Sensitively directed by Stafford Arima (who also recently helmed Children's Letters to God), you never once feel that the five men at the center of the show don't passionately believe everything they're singing.

The performers playing are talented, too: Cheyenne Jackson, Tyler Maynard, Andy Karl, Ryan Duncan, and David Josefsberg play, respectively, Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham. (Yes, he's intentionally Jewish.) Only Jackson disappoints even slightly: He has the looks and performing chops to be convincing as the leader of the group, but lacks any real charisma or individuality. (If he's intending this as a subtle comment on the whitewashed, corporate-driven nature of pop music, it comes across as too subtle to be effective.)

The others are more interesting: Maynard is a scream as the barely closeted Mark, who has a major crush on Matthew; Karl's hilarious as the tough, streetwise Luke; Duncan pours on just the right amount of sultry, lusty charm as Juan; and Josefsberg, always sporting a yarmulke, squeezes as many laughs as is possible out of his fish-out-of-water character. Perhaps it goes without saying, but all five men are dynamite singers (perhaps too good given the musical genre the show is aping) and dancers, executing the synchronous arm movements, kicks, and other assorted gyrations that constitute Christopher Gattelli's energetic and pitch-perfect choreography.

Designers Anna Louizos (set), Natasha Katz (lighting), Gail Brassard (costumes), and Peter Hylenski (sound) all do an excellent job in creating a true concert environment for the show, and make the tiny theater seem much larger than it actually is. Music director Lynne Shankel leads the three-piece band, which provides eerily appropriate accompaniment for the songs, complete with all the superfluous percussion and throbbing bass you have the right to expect.

Problems with the show are minor: The book occasionally strains, particularly when tying the nominal storylines up near the end of the evening, and the show takes fifteen or twenty minutes too long to kick into high gear. But once Altar Boyz gets going, it really is as if it's a show on a holy crusade to provide high-octane entertainment, big laughs, and even - yes - a real message underneath it all. At that, it's a divine success.

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New York Musical Theatre Festival
Altar Boyz
Through September 26
Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission
Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, 304 West 47th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.352.3101