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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Altar Boyz is Absolute Fun

Also see Richard's reviews of Franc D'Ambrosio's Hollywood and BOT

Altar Boyz
Nick Blaemire, Jay Garcia, Matthew Buckner, Ryan J Ratliff and
Jesse JP Johnson

You don't have to be Catholic to enjoy this rockin' and booty-swinging, fast-paced 90-minute musical. I had the time of my life watching this fantastic five, who have an uncanny ability to dance and sing in an unusual five part harmony. The book by Kevin Del Aguila is a hoot while the music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker are melodic pop and clever. Christopher Gattelli's precision choreography is downright fun. They put the Radio City Musical Hall Rockettes to shame.

Altar Boyz is rocking the audience at the Orpheum Theatre through April 8th. The show has played for over two years in a 300-seat theatre in New York in 2004, and a concern was whether or not it could transfer successfully to large theatres like the Orpheum. Fortunately, it loses next to nothing as it grows to fit a bigger house. Director Stafford Arima has put together an affable, vocally talented cast of fresh young faces to make the show move. However, I wish the sound system at the big Orpheum were better. Some of the songs with very clever lyrics come over clearly, such as "We Are the Altar Boyz" and solos "La Vida Eternal" and "Epiphany," while songs such as "Church Rulez" are difficult to understand due to excessively loud sound. However, that should not stop you from seeing this lively entertaining show.

Altar Boyz does have a plot. The boys have come to San Francisco for the finale of their Raise the Praise tour. The sober but fun voice of God, provided by Shadoe Stevens, moves the story along at a fast pace. The audience is introduced to heartthrob leader Matthew (Matthew Buckner); hunk Luke (Jesse JP Johnson), just back from rehab for "exhaustion"; the extremely fey Mark (Ryan J Ratliff), who has a secret crush on Matthew; Juan (Jay Garcia), a wild and wonderful Latino who was discovered abandoned under a tree by Spanish-speaking nuns; and Abraham (Ryan Strand), a Jewish lad who is there because he can write good lyrics.

A few of the small bits that the guys do would be better in a smaller theatre. The puppet lambs of God seem lost on the big stage of the Orpheum. However, the meticulousness of this group makes up for any minor difficulties. The five are backed up by conductor Gary Adler on the keyboard, Jeff Trudell on drums, Dwight Okamura on Keyboard 2 and Dave MacNab on guitar.

Each of the five boyz is terrific and shines in his own right. Jay Garcia (Avenue Q Las Vegas Company and Blue's Clues Live) is an absolute delight as Juan. This young man has moves that are a joy to watch and he flies about the stage. He brings down the house with "La Vita Eternal." As Mark, Ryan J Ratliff (Forever Plaid, You're a Good Man Charlie Brown) stops the show cold with "Epiphany." He leads up to this song as Sammy does in his big scene in A Chorus Line: "I am Catholic, it's not a choice."

Matthew Buckner (performed mostly in shows at Universal Studios, SeaWorld and Disney and was a finalist on The Road to Stardom with Missy Elliott on UPN) is perfect as Matthew. He underplays the part as the lead but has a very attractive appearance with great vocal cords. As Luke, Jesse JP Johnson (national road companies of Grease and Oklahoma!) is a cross between Stanley in Streetcar Named Desire and John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. He is great as a guy suffering from "exhaustion." Ryan Strand (New York credits A Shelter in Our Car) is fine as the Jewish boy from Brooklyn. He has a smooth, melodic voice when singing solo.

Anna Louizos' set design is like something you would see at a Backstreet Boys concert, with a bank of spotlights on each side that occasionally blind the audience. The band directed by Gary Adler is a good backup for the guys. This is a fast paced show with the lads with their luxuriant voices doing step-perfect movements reminding you of those great groups of the 1990s.

Altar Boyzplays at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco, through April 8th. For tickets call 415-512-7770 or go to www.shnsf.com. The next Best of Broadway production will be Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opening at the Golden Gate on April 11 and running through May 12th.


Photo: Carol Rosegg


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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