BWW Review: ALTAR BOYZ Sanctify Comedy at CLO Cabaret
When I was a little kid in Catholic elementary school, the teachers- all lay people, no nuns- raised money by staging a production of Nunsense in the cafeteria. The show was creaky and outdated, the jokes were old in Moses's time, and the songs were generic, but audiences ate it up. Seeing Altar Boyz at the CLO Cabaret, I couldn't help but think the show was a Nunsense for a post-John Paul II generation.
Part of the appeal of a show like Altar Boyz is how much it believes itself to be of its time, with tongue-in-cheek, trendy hipness. Naff, the British would call it. In a weird way, the fact that the boy-band boom and the popular Christian rock boom have both long passed now makes the ribbing both genres get in this small-scale show even funnier. Just as much as these semi-absurd Catholic sex symbols believe fervently in their mission from God to save souls through pop music, they also believe just as devoutly that pre-YouTube, pre-Bieber boy band music is still the hottest thing in the world. And for a few moments, they almost convince you of that exact dogma. As idealistic Matthew (Michael James), fey Mark (Mason Alexander Park), brainless dancer Luke (Michael Greer), Latin lothario Juan (Javier Manente) and Jewish songwriter Abraham (Carter Ellis) sing and dance with complete sincerity and lack of self-awareness, they can almost succeed in "altar-ing your mind."
The show's plot is light: the Altar Boyz, a Catholic boy band, were called, quite literally, by God to unite and spread his love through rhythmic pop music- much to the confusion of Abraham, a practicing Jew who nonetheless follows God's inexplicable order to write and sing Christian music. As they perform the final show on their "Raise the Praise" tour, internal tensions and secrets within the band bubble to the surface, leading to crises of faith and friendship.
Director/choreographer Carlos Encinas and composer/music director Gary Adler have assembled a great cast of dancers, singers and actors, but the whole in this case is stronger than the sum of its parts, as it should be. No specific Altar Boy has an enormously charismatic solo performance- there is no Justin Timberlake in this *NSYNC- but when they sing, dance and harmonize together, their union is flawless. Michael James's good-hearted but naive Matthew has shades of Adam Devine of Pitch Perfect in his blend of sweetness and obliviousness. While Michael Greer's Luke may not shake the room with dramatic bass notes like Andy Karl, he dances rings around Broadway's favorite bass in the original production, and his Magic Mike-inspired dance breaks never fail to elicit cheers from the audience, and his portrayal of possibly the dumbest pop singer of all time is genuinely hysterical. Carter Ellis seems, at first, to be saddled with the weakest character, playing the straight man to the more comedic bandmates, but his grounded and mature Abraham pays off in the second half of the show with the most heartfelt dramatic material. On the other end of the spectrum, Javier Manente milks laugh after laugh out of Juan, a one-joke character who nonetheless grows funnier and funnier as the show goes on, thanks to Manente's hysterical, sometimes hystrionic performance.
The only Altar Boy to get a huge showcase number all to himself is Mark, and it's not a spoiler to say that Mark is the gay one. Whether he's out or just in the world's most transparent closet isn't necessarily clear, but it's obvious that the band neither cares nor judges him for it- they're very New Pope in that regard. Mason Alexander Park, fluttering and birdlike in his makeup and mannerisms, knocks Mark's identity-affirming ballad out of the park. Beginning as a straight (no pun intended) pop ballad in the late-era Michael Jackson style, Park's performance metamorphoses into over-the-top camp, stepping briefly into a Judy Garland impersonation and finally climaxing in a riffing, scenery-chewing finale that recalls the parodic self-indulgences of Martin Short. Tears of laughter were literally streaming from the faces of audience members around me when he finally finished his flurry of high notes and Aguilera-esque vocalese.
What I didn't expect was to see many of those same audience members crying genuine tears at the end of the show, as the characters confront their personal failings and questions of faith. Altar Boyz is a satire, obviously, but it's not a piss-take on religion like The Book of Mormon. The humor here is pointed but somewhat affectionate, more targeted at Catholic culture than at the faith itself. This made it an ideal candidate to appeal both to people of faith and people without, or more specifically Catholics and non-Catholics. For instance, "Church Rulez" turns the stand up, kneel, sit down, repeat patterns of Catholic Mass into a dance; this elicited laughs from non-Catholics about how absurd and silly the whole practice seems, and laughs from Catholics based on how true it is.
Behind the jokes, the wackiness and the manifestation of God as voiced by Pittsburgh's most famous radio hos Bubba, Altar Boyz works so well because it is idealistic in a dark time. The Catholic Church has its demons, and the show pointedly does not make any reference to church corruption, homophobia or the molestation scandals. Instead, it presents a look at what Catholicism, or any faith, could and should be- a way of spreading love, acceptance, peace and harmony. It's hard to think of a better picture of what Catholicism should be or wants to be than the final image of the play: a straight white man, a recovering addict, a homosexual, an immigrant and a person of a different faith, all holding hands and singing "I believe in you," meaning not only God but each other and every person in the audience. It's a quiet but powerful moment in a show that usually aims for belly laughs and booty shakes. If in the real world, religion was more like Altar Boyz, everyone would be having a better time.