Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
It isn't overly difficult to write a show that spoofs someone or something. They seem to be a dime a dozen. The problem is that most of them aren't any good. Therefore, when a new show comes along that presents satire in a unique and entertaining package, and with songs and a story written with great skill, it's refreshing. Audiences in Cincinnati are currently experiencing such a musical in the form of Altar Boyz, currently playing at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. In a production that wisely copies the current New York production in many ways, the show and its talented cast are bound to make believers of many theatergoers during its month-long run.
Altar Boyz is a remarkably funny and wonderfully crafted spoof of both boy bands and contemporary Christian pop music. Chronicling the story of five young men (four Catholics and one Jewish) called by God to form a boy band and spread the gospel, the show is supposed to represent the final stop on their cross-country tour. Before the show's end, they hope to save the souls of all in attendance, and address some of their own secret issues as well.
The book by Kevin Del Aguila (based on a concept by Marc Kessler and Kevin Davenport) and songs by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker carefully walk the fine line of good taste in poking lighthearted fun at faith issues without ever being offensive, and saving the most biting satire for mocking the boy band genre. All of the stereotypical boy band characters are present the handsome and romantic lead singer (Matthew), the tenderhearted, in-the-closet effeminate guy (Mark), the bad boy (Luke), the Latino (Juan) and the outsider (Abraham). A number of religious lessons are presented (including abstinence, sin, materialism and tolerance) and the piece has sufficient heart to go along with its non-stop comedy. Throw in a concert atmosphere and some audience participation, and you have a smart foundation for a show.
Adler and Walker's songs are first-rate pop-inspired melodies with richly witty lyrics. There are dance songs ("Rhythm in Me"), a religious instructional tune ("Church Rulez"), romantic ballads ("Something About You") and praise songs (the soaring "I Believe"). Nearly every song has a surprising comedic spin lyrically, and the tunes will stay will you after leaving the theater. Especially hilarious is "Epiphany," which playfully convinces the audience it's going to be one thing, only to again throw us for a fun twist.
Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park is extremely lucky to have Director Stafford Arima and Choreography Christopher Gattelli on hand to duplicate the work they supplied for the Off-Broadway production of Altar Boyz, which is still running almost three years after opening in New York. The pair is just as responsible for the success of the piece as the writers. Mr. Arima, who previously helmed Ace at Playhouse, provides an appropriate tone throughout, and balances the comedy and heart of the material to ensure the jokes never turn into campy farce. The show's frenetic pace and genuine performances are carefully guided by Mr. Arima. Some cute references to Cincinnati have been added to the script as well. The dancing in Altar Boyz is just about as integral to the show as they come. As with most pop boy bands, this group is in constant motion. Not only does Mr. Gattelli replicate the kind of dance moves associated with such bands, his work is technically better and serves the comedy of the piece extremely well. It isn't surprising that regional theaters are hiring these two to restage the show rather than trying it themselves. Why change what already works so well.
The Playhouse cast provides extremely strong dancing, tight vocal harmonies, and endearing performances. As Matthew, Michael Kadin Craig conveys the requisite charisma and confidence. Shua Potter portrays Mark with the over-the-top mannerisms that make the character's obvious yet unspoken homosexuality a laugh riot. Adam Fleming's Luke is aptly clueless as the group's street-wise troublemaker (as much as is allowable in a Christian band). Mauricio Perez drips with fiery emotion and sexuality as Juan, and Ravi Roth displays versatility and strong stage presence as Abraham.
Anna Louizos has adapted the playful concert style set she created for the Off-Broadway production for a thrust stage. The costumes by Alejo Vietti are character appropriate and handsomely rendered. Ben Stanton's lighting is appropriate for the pop/rock concert setting while still meeting the theatrical demands of the musical. Henry Palkes leads a first-rate four piece band.
Altar Boyz is such great fun. Whatever your faith or background, this high-energy cast, catchy tunes and non-stop laughs should stir even the most hardened theatergoing souls. Here's the rare chance to see an intimate show in a format close to how it was originally staged. Altar Boyz continues at Cincinnati Playhouse In The Park until November 16, 2007. For tickets and more information, call (513) 421-3888.-- Scott Cain