Also see Ann's review of Missionary Position
Full of life and faith, the Altar Boyz are bustin' moves and spreading the Word in boy band harmony on the Byham stage. Conceived by Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport, the show has been running Off-Broadway for over two years, ad it lends itself well to a touring version. Kevin Del Aguila's book allows a natural integration to the local setting, with the basic plot being a Christian singing group performing their "Raise the Praise" tour. This also affords the cast members plenty of opportunity to integrate with the audience, building enthusiasm for the "concert" performances by clapping, shouting back, etc. The score by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker features nicely constructed pseudo-boyband-pop songs with a light patina of satire. Yes, it's a take-off on boy bands like N Synch and the Backstreet Boys, and, yes, it's a spoof of Christian pop singing groups, but no one should be offended here. It's all innocent fun.
The Boyz are on tour to save some souls through precision choreography and sweet tenor voices. Each character is a bit of a type: handsome and popular leader Matthew, gay boy Mark with a crush on the handsome and popular leader, Latino ladies man Juan, Jewish Abraham who can write lyrics, and education-challenged "street" Luke ("Who needs a G.E.D? I got my B-I-B-L-E!"). The types are played for laughs, but in a good natured way. There is a very thin story, through which we find even the Boyz need a little saving, but the thrust and fun of the evening is in the well-performed song and dance.
The cast's youth and energy are contagious, getting a visible and audible reaction out of audience members of all ages. Because of their relative inexperience, some of the character development and comedy is played too obviously. There's a bit of a thin line here, as the boys in the band are inexperienced performers, and at times it's appropriate for the cast to show them as less nuanced actors, but when the characters are being themselves they should appear natural. Having been spoiled by New York's original cast, I know it's possible to succeed by not crossing the line. By the end of the tour, I'm sure these young men will be showing more of that restraint, if encouraged to do so by their director.
As Matthew, Matthew Buckner is appropriately good-looking, and he does a great job of playing the more sensible member of the group. He dances very well, though his voice is challenged at times with notes in the higher range, particularly on his showy piece, "Something About You." Ryan J. Ratliff is a winning Mark, but he could really play down some of the "personality defining" gestures of the sweet character. Jay Garcia provides a hot-blooded Juan, and he has a great voice. His "La Vida Eternal," when Juan isn't crying, is excellent. As Abraham, Ryan Strand shows a strong voice. He has the least to do, but fits in well. Jesse JP Johnson is very effective as Luke, with a solid "Body, Mind & Soul." All do a great job with Christopher Gattelli's superb choreography and their voices fit well in harmony, particularly on "Epiphany".
Andy Grobengieser conducts the outstanding Altar Boyz Band. Lighting by Natasha Katz is perfect.
Mostly a feel-good, fun time, Altar Boyz hits a few false notes when some more serious issues (cruelty and death) enter the story too close to the laugh lines to feel comfortable. Overall, the show is a crowd pleaser for theatregoers of all ages and religious persuations. The Byham Theatre lends itself very nicely to the production; it's not necessary to be super close to the stage (you may miss the effect of the group dances), but from the far reaches of the Benedum, I'm afraid a lot of the ambiance would be lost.
Altar Boyz continues at the Byham Theatre through May 6. For ticket and schedule nformation, visit pgharts.org