Review: BWW REVIEWS: ALTAR BOYZ at Garden Theater

SNS show a cotton candy-coated communion wafer guaranteed to raise spirits and eyebrows

By: Jan. 24, 2022
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Review: BWW REVIEWS: ALTAR BOYZ  at Garden Theater

Oh, the 1990s. What a complicated legacy of music you have wrought.

For those of you who have held on to your bright pastel jackets, white overalls, and acid-washed jeans in hopes of a Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch reunion, the Short North Stage's production of ALTAR BOYZ will seem like a period piece. For those who were raised listening to the dulcet tones of inoffensive Christian pop music, ALTAR BOYZ offers a cheeky, soft tickle to the "souler" plexus. Either way, you have until mid-February to check out this laugh-filled musical.

Director/choreographer Dionysia Williams describes the 90-minute musical as a "perfect love letter to the late 1990s/early 2000 boy bands" like NSYNC or Backstreet Boys or closer to the point, Christian pop groups like The Newsboys and DC Talk.

The gospel of this fictional band is made up of Matthew the suave (played by Connor Barr), Mark the closeted (P.J. Palmer), Luke the "exhausted" (Antonio Emerson Brown), Juan the parentless (Chris Carranza) and Abraham the token Jew (Jack Mastrianni). Their mission is simple: to raise hope and lower the number of sinners on the Soul Sensor DX 12 during their Columbus, Ohio shows.

The musical, written by Kevin Del Aguila (book) and Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker (music and lyrics) features well-crafted parodies of Christian pop. One such example is "The Calling," which includes the hook, "Jesus called me on my cell phone. No roaming charges were incurred. He told me that I should go out in the world and spread His glorious word."

Prior to performing "The Calling," the band's creation is relived from the prospective of each member. Luke's inclusion into the band consists of two words, him saying "Wazzup" and the members responding with a hardy 'Wazzup." Abraham's addition is the longest of the group as he is accepted into the band for his ability to churn out banal Christian lyrics despite his Jewish heritage. Mark says to Matthew, 'You think he's got enough talent to write all our lyrics?' Matthew responds, 'He should be able to. After all he wrote this whole sketch."

What makes the show work is that the spotlight shifts seamlessly among the quintet. In true boy band fashion, there's the charismatic leader (Barr, who could be the stunt double for NSYNC's Joey McIntyre) but each singer/dancer has enough on-stage business to attract his own fandom.

Barr channels his inner Nick Carter/Lachey as he croons the show's best tune, "Something About You," the band's hymn to celibacy. He nails the boy band warble, earnestly intoning verses like, "And I know that there is something about you, baby. Something I can't even say what it is. But there's something about you, baby. Girl, you make me want to wait."

Matthew's right-hand man is Mark (Palmer), who is forced to live out of the glare of the spotlight because of a secret he is hiding. Towards the end of the show, Mark makes his big reveal (well, sort of) in the song "Epiphany:" Aren't you tired of the lies you tell so you can hide. What if my friends don't accept me? What if my parents reject me? But you won't truly be you until you can say, 'I ... am.... a Catholic.'"

Like Abraham the lone Jew and Mark the only closeted Catholic, each member of the band shrouds similar secrets. Luke conceals a stint in a rehab center (one of the many "sponsors" for the Altar Boyz's tour) for an addiction to communion wine and wafers, or as he terms it, "Exhaustion." Juan covers the pain of growing up without his biological parents. "I can't imagine what that was like," one band member exclaims to Juan. "I mean all of our parents loved us."

Another highpoint of the show is the bands' confessional box where "members of the audience admit their sins" in hopes of finding peace and words of wisdom from the boy band. When one audience member acknowledges she covets her neighbor's ass, Juan tries to be helpful as the rest of the band looks on in horror. "I know what she is saying. She's in love with her neighbor's donkey. What you need to do is bring over a carrot and say to your neighbor, 'here's a carrot for your ass.' Maybe he will let you pet his ass or ride his ass."

Whenever God makes an appearance in musicals (THE BOOK OF MORMON) and plays (such as HAND TO GOD), it can create great comic/conscience confliction in me. I really enjoyed both of those offerings but felt like I had to throw up in a confessional booth afterwards for relishing them.

I didn't feel like I was watching something blasphemous and profane on the way home from ALTER BOYZ. And sometimes, that's all you need to raise the bar on the Soul Sensor DX 12.

The Short North Stage presents ALTAR BOYZ at 7 p.m. Jan. 27-29, Feb. 3-5, and Feb. 10-12 with 2 p.m. matinees on Jan. 30, Feb. 6, and Feb. 13 at the Garden Theater (1187 N. High Street in downtown Columbus). Call 614-725-4042 for details.


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