Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of Citizen Josh
The beautiful Bethesda Theatre in the Maryland suburbs of Washington finally has a production that lives up to its setting with the area premiere of Altar Boyz. This good-humored send-up of boy bands and Christian rock, an Off-Broadway hit since 2005, is a charmer for audiences of all ages and religious traditions.
Authors Kevin Del Aguila (book) and Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker (music and lyrics) tell the story of the title band in ninety fast minutes, without intermission. The Altar BoyzMatthew (Jared Zirilli), the handsome leader; sweet, fey Mark (Patrick Elliot); aspiring gangsta Luke (Travis Morin); Hispanic heartthrob Juan (Michael Busillo); and Abraham (David R. Gordon), the Jewish guy who writes the songsexplain that, while they have been playing small venues, they dream of filling Madison Square Garden.
Director Stafford Arima keeps the energy level high without turning the characters into cartoons, and Christopher Gattelli's choreography borrows from a variety of rock and pop traditions. Josh Tuckman conducts the rocking five-piece band from a scaffold high above the stage, part of a production and lighting design by Ray Cullom that incorporates sight gags in the most unlikely places.
The humor is gentle, tweaking the edges of religious belief without ridicule. (For example, audience members are invited to write down their sins at the "Confession Stand" in the lobby as they enter.) Through the course of the performance, the Boyz refer to their high tech "Soul Sensor," which determines how many audience members are struggling with sin at any particular moment.
All five of the performers know the moves and understand how to sell a song and a joke (even a malfunctioning microphone wasn't enough to throw the cast members seriously off their stride), but wide-eyed, guileless Elliot has fun in the flashiest role: Mark is an Altar Boy whose love for God comes second to his unacknowledged crush on one of his bandmates. Zirilli gets the opportunity to serenade a lucky woman from the audience, and Busillo's character comes to grips with an existential crisis.
The Bethesda Theatre