Critics strive to be impartial in all aspects of their work, but everyone has some personal Achilles' heel where total journalistic objectivity is something akin to suffering through a surgical procedure without benefit of anesthesia. Many a weighty lasagna has influenced a review over the centuries, I would suspect, as has many a hot date. My particular flaw comes from a decided distain for organized faith-based corporations (oh sorry, I meant churches), so if a play such as Altar Boyz offers the promise of parodying religious fanaticism, I’m right there.
The thing with Altar Boyz, the enormously successful off-Broadway and touring company hit musical, is this: either at this point in my increasingly more distrustful life I have no sense of humor left for religious matters, or there are times when Kevin Del Aguila’s syrupy book isn’t tough enough on its subject matter. Aguila’s slim story is rife with more minor conflicts than a gooey old warmhearted episode of Father Knows Best, particularly unsatisfying considering all the places he could have explored while satirizing the blandness of faith-based music performed by overcompensating kids working from indoctrinated belief systems and fueled by pure adrenaline.
There’s no intellectual reason for this fresh-faced Christian boy band from Ohio to try so hard to convert their audience on the final leg of their “Raise the Praise” tour, except that they’ve been brainwashed by their unscrupulous “elders” into seeing this as their calling. Aguila’s suggestive but too-tame morality tale does occasionally hint that there’s danger in collective blind faith—especially when, at play’s end, the egos of four of the bandmates account for the last numbers left blinking the group’s “Soul Sensor DX-12,” a digital device mounted above the stage displaying the number of burdened souls present in the theatre needing to be saved.
See, besides “celebrating our Savior’s slow and gruesome death,” the goal of the Boyz, aptly named Matthew, Luke, Mark, Abraham and Juan, is to reduce the number on their machine to zero in 90 minutes of fervent song and dance teetering between beat-box rhythms and traditional hallelujahs. It would seem likely these five cheek-pinch-cute kids would be mega-taxed preaching here Jason & DeMarco-style at West Hollywood’s premier gay theatre complex, but there must be some reassurance in the fact that Altar Boyz has nothing whatsoever to do with anything the Celebration has ever stood for—except that it offers a couple of hours to watch five pretty boys sing, dance, and look adorable.
Yet there’s a lot more here then simply gaping at strapping young’uns clad in costumer Michael Mullen’s glittery homage to Ed Hardy in this particular in-house bred production of Altar Boyz. What director Patrick Peterson wrenches from his extremely appealing and übertalented performers is a hundred times more interesting than the slight script or Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker’s predictable musical score. With the Celebration’s serendipitous collaboration of Peterson, musical director Christopher Lloyd Bratten, a knockout band and five charismatic kids who work their pert little butts off interpreting choreographer Ameenah Kaplan’s delightfully tongue-in-cheek moves, magic happens—even for cynical old heathens like myself.
Jake Wesley Stewart is the major standout as the Vinne Barbarino-esque Luke, a guy who substitutes the word “exhaustion” for “stoned,” and the ridiculously sweet-faced Jesse Bradford, with his Clearasil commercial smile and confident vocal power, is a true find for LA musical theatre as the group’s leader Matthew. Clifford Bañagale is a charmer as the closeted Mark, a slightly sad and conflicted kid in love with Matt, and both Robert Acinapura and Kelly Rice as, respectively, the Boyz’ resident Hispanic and Jewish members, effortlessly rise above their otherwise glaringly stereotypical characters.
Altar Boyz isn’t going to convert me, but these guys can try again anytime.
Altar Boyz plays through Aug. 23 at the Celebration Theatre, 7051-B Santa Monica Bl., Hollywood; 323.957.1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com.