Altar Boyz: What Would Jesus Shout-Out?
Contrary to what some may surmise, you need not be a 15-year-old girl from Westchester to have a great time at Altar Boyz, the new musical spoof of Christian pop music and teenage boy bands. Nor do you need to be a 35-year-old man from Chelsea to have a special appreciation for this 90-minute romp where sexy, but chaste, young hip-hoppers shake their hot cross buns in tight pants while preaching the dangers of loose morals.
Take me, a 45-year-old childless and straight Upper West Side male without cable who couldn't name a single tune by In Sink, nor has any idea how Joey Fatone made a living before becoming a Broadway star. I'm sure there were plenty of references that passed over my head like they were the Angel of Death and I was soaked in lamb's blood, but still I laughed my secular butt off.
Presented as a rock concert with a plot, I believe the first time that concept has been used north of 14th Street since Jeff Conaway starred in The News for four blessed performances, bookwriter Kevin Del Aguila (concept by Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport) and composer/lyricists Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker have whipped up a sly little satire that can be enjoyed as simple, frothy pro-Christian fun or you can turn the other tongue-in-cheek and take it as a nasty send-up of religious fanaticism. And you'd be correct either way.
"Your posse may not think it's dope / To confess your sins and like The Pope", sings Matthew (Scott Porter) the group's leader with the scruffy, but ripped, bad boy look. He's joined by Juan (Ryan Duncan), the heavily-accented Latino who designs their costumes; Abraham (David Josefsberg), the token Jew who writes the lyrics; Luke (Andy Karl), the re-hab graduate who drives the van, and choreographer Mark (Tyler Maynard), a sassy twink who may not be out of the closet but the door's wide open. In the host-thin plot, the boys explain how they got together, aided by radio DJ Shadoe Stevens as the recorded voice of G.O.D., and the personal challenges each has experienced and overcome through Christ. There's also a wacky running gag concerning a computerized contraption which monitors how many souls have been unburdened through the course of the show.
Although the book is loaded with laughs ("We're wearing bling for The King"), Altar Boyz truly takes off when Lynne Shankel's five-piece band let's go with a hook-laden tune for the boyz to frenetically aerobicize to with some of the wildest unison choreography this side of the Knick City Dancers, courtesy of Christopher Gattelli.
Rather than collaborating, Adler and Walker each wrote half the score themselves, but the sound is unified pop and hip-hop. What makes the lyrics especially juicy is that a cast album of the show can pretty much pass as legitimate Cristian rock, and it's not until you see a song like "(God Put The) Rhythm in Me" in its proper context that the homoerotic themes come out. Okay, so maybe their dance club hit "Crucifunktion" is a little obvious, as is a hilarious song about God's miracles with the catchy chorus of "Christ, How'd ja Do That?", but when Matthew preaches the value of abstinence ("No matter how Mary Magdelicious she may be looking") with the loving sentiment "Girl, You Make Me Wanna Wait", no CD can depict the longing looks of conflicted affection he's getting from Mark.
The church's views on homosexuality are never discussed, but through Tyler Maynard's cracklingly comic performance (a standout in an excellent and seemingly tireless ensemble), it's continually simmering in the subtext, as is lyricist Abraham's uncomfortable situation of being the gospel voice promoting a faith that is not his own.
And yet you can disregard all of that and just kick back with director Stafford Arima's non-stop production that keeps the giddiness soaring at an unholy pace. Either way, I bet there won't be a dry pew in the house.
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: (l-r) Scott Porter, David Josefsberg, Andy Karl, Tyler Maynard, Ryan Duncan
Bottom: (l-r) Tyler Maynard, Ryan Duncan, Scott Porter, David Josefsberg and Andy Karl