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Chicago by John Olson

Altar Boyz
National Tour at LaSalle Bank Theatre, Chicago

Also see John's review of Denmark

Altar Boyz
Matthew Buckner, Ryan J Ratliff, Jesse JP Johnson, Jay Garcia and Nick Blaemire
The fictitious Christian boy band of the musical that pretends to be the closing night of a concert tour is now on the road for real, in a national tour that opened October 10th at Chicago's LaSalle Bank Theatre. The premise translates well enough from the intimacy of Off-Broadway's Dodger Stages to the sort of venue that houses big Broadway musicals. This is, after all, the size of hall a rock band might play, so it's in fact a more plausible setting than a 200-seat Off-Broadway theater.

The production and creative team have gathered a winning cast for the tour as well. As Matthew, Matthew Buckner gives the front-man a humble charisma, easy charm and innocent sexiness that make him perfectly believable as the Boyz' main heartthrob, and Buckner could have originated this part as successfully as did Scott Porter Off-Broadway. Another gem in the cast is Nick Blaemire as Abraham, who like Buckner understands that, for this material to work, it's absolutely essential that the performers play but not comment on their characters. That's a lesson still to be learned by Ryan J Ratliff, who pushes the gay twink stereotype a bit too hard as Mark. Jay Garcia as Juan and Jesse JP Johnson (the latter promoted at the last minute from understudy to Luke) need a little more time to completely fall into their characters and for that matter, to commit to their accents. Garcia has the lady-loving Latin routine down pretty well, but falls in and out of his Spanish accent. That may be part of the joke, but if so, he could make more of it. Same with the on-again/off-again Brooklyn brogue sported by Johnson as the white homey wannabe from Ohio. There are no complaints, though, about the singing and dancing abilities or overall energy of this troupe, and Johnson additionally has a remarkable gymnastic ability that makes him a lot of fun to watch.

Given that the conceit of this show is that it's a rock concert, and presuming that a major element of attending such a concert is its communal experience, one has to wonder if a subscription series of Broadway touring companies is the best venue in which to enjoy a piece like this. To be sure, a good share of the audience at the performance I attended was having a great time, but it seemed that some of those who got Altar Boyz along with Annie and Mamma Mia! may not have known exactly what to expect. This is a show that, like Wicked, seems in New York to have developed a following of repeat viewers that add a lot of energy to the occasion, and that sort of phenomenon was not entirely in evidence at the LaSalle Bank Theatre. While the economics of a national tour were undoubtedly attractive to producers Ken Davenport and Robyn Goodman, might a show like this be better served by an open-ended run in a smaller venue, following the models of Chicago's long-running Off-Broadway transplants Blue Man Group and I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, and allowing it to find its audience?

If the marketing and publicity machines do their job in setting audience expectations and attracting the right crowd, those who find their way to Altar Boyz on tour will have a great time with this gentle satire of boy bands, corporate commercialism and too-easy commoditization of religion and sentiment. The more they recognize the cliches of boy bands and Christian pop songs in Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker's score, the better time they'll have.

Altar Boyz is running at the LaSalle Bank Theatre, 18 East Monroe, Chicago, through Sunday, October 29. For more information, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com and www.altarboyz.com.


Photo: Carol Rosegg, 2006

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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