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Irreverent? Oh, heavens!

Blend Christian pop and boy bands. The result: The cheeky stage musical 'Altar Boyz,' which draws its own congregation of faithful.

February 13, 2007|David Ng | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — Everyone agreed "24/7" was funny. Hysterical, in fact.

But there was a problem: The song was in poor taste and possibly offensive.

For songwriters Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, that was just one of the challenges they faced in 2002 as they were creating a musical satire about a Christian boy band on a mission to save souls.

The writers knew they were already treading on sacred ground. For the cast, they borrowed directly from the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and Juan, plus a fifth band member, Abraham, who's Jewish. They gave each character an irreverent edge: Matthew is the sexy lead singer with a seductive voice, Juan is the suave Latin stallion, Luke is the hip-hop fanatic with a drinking problem, and Abraham is the rebellious Jewish kid who wants to stay kosher.

"24/7" was supposed to be performed by Mark, the youngest band member and "the sensitive one." In the romantic ballad, Mark sings about his love of praying and his devotion to the Lord: "I'm down on my knees / Staring up at Heaven / Giving You lip service / 24/7."

In the end, the song had to go.

"It pushed the envelope a little too far with the double-entendres," says Walker. "It was too graphic."

Even without the song, the show, "Altar Boyz," would go on to become one of the most talked-about off-Broadway hits of 2005. Nearly two years later, "Altar Boyz" is still running, and the national tour reaches the Wadsworth Theatre tonight.

The team ultimately replaced "24/7" with "Epiphany," in which Mark "comes out" as a Catholic. ("I am a Catholic and I'm proud / Sing it strong, sing it loud!") Audiences can read the song different ways, and the winking ambiguity usually gets a big laugh.

"You have to be watchful when you're dealing with comedy," says director Stafford Arima. "One adjective can be slightly too specific." Throughout its 12 catchy numbers, "Altar Boyz" walks a fine line between naughty and nice, saintly and sinful. The show's ecumenical sense of humor has won over New York's toughest theater critics and the devoutly religious.

"We've had nuns and priests come to see the show, and they love it," says playwright Kevin Del Aguila, who wrote the book for the musical. "Though sometimes I wonder how much of the satire they get."

If there's one aspect of "Altar Boyz" everyone can agree on, it's that the show demands a lot from its young cast. For each performance, the actors are required to dance, act and sing lyrics like, "God put the rhythm in me" and "Girl, you make me want to wait" with credible sincerity.

Oh, and they need to be funny too.

"It's an extremely physical show," says actor Matthew Buckner, who plays Matthew, the group's equivalent of Justin Timberlake. "There's a ton of dancing -- a lot of pop and hip-hop moves combined with singing. We're jumping, we're on the ground. Not to mention having to do that in really tight jeans."

To capture the feel of a real concert, director Arima put the creative team through boy-band boot camp. He brought in his collection of nearly 30 CDs and 20 DVDs of groups, including New Kids on the Block, 98 Degrees, 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys and the Click Five. "I love the sound that boy bands create," says Arima, 37. "They emit a sexual energy, a confidence and a sense of brotherhood." He also had the team listen to Plus One, a short-lived Christian boy band. (The "plus one" is God.)

"I wanted to put their musical heads around the material so they could find an affection toward it," explains the director. He says he wanted to avoid the mean-spirited approach of MTV's "2ge+her," a boy-band spoof show that aired in 2000.

The crash course proved invaluable for the songwriters, neither of whom was a boy-band fan nor a churchgoer. (Both grew up in Christian families but aren't practicing.) Adler, 41, and Walker, 35, met on the "Jekyll & Hyde" national tour, where they worked as musician and conductor, respectively. Ken Davenport, a manager for that show, knew that they wrote songs on the side, and invited them to work on an idea that would eventually become "Altar Boyz."

To prepare, Adler spent hours studying the lyrics of Christian rock groups. "I was listening to a group called dc Talk, a sort of a heavy-metal Christian band," he recalls. "My niece had given me a mix tape of her favorite Christian bands for inspiration. A song they had written was called 'Jesus Freak.' And they rhymed the word 'stranger' with the phrase 'born in the manger,' and I thought that was kind of funny. So I wrote a silly song that rhymed things like 'tribal' with 'Bible' and 'please us' and 'Jesus.' " That song eventually became the show's opening number, "We Are the Altar Boyz."

Around the time Del Aguila came on board in 2004 to write the book, boy bands were on the decline but "The Passion of the Christ" had become a huge box-office success.

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