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THEATER REVIEW

`Altar Boyz' turns a skeptic into a believer

February 16, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

The concert setting strikes one as suspiciously secular. Sure, there's incense, but it blows in like disco fog. And the young men onstage appear to worship 'N Sync more than they do the Lord. Not to get too sanctimonious about it, but those moves they're busting in their skin-tight jeans ought to provoke a Vatican rebuke.

Forgive me, pious theatergoers, for I have sinned. I attended the opening of "Altar Boyz" on Wednesday night at the Wadsworth Theater and enjoyed quite a few heretical laughs.

I've been a Doubting Thomas about this show ever since it premiered off-Broadway nearly two years ago to rave reviews and subsequently spawned a national tour.

A musical parody of boy bands and Christian pop, performed with "American Idol"-strength razzmatazz, didn't seem to speak to my theatrical denomination. How funny could a protracted skit, no matter how devilishly well done, be?

Well, the happy answer is a good deal more than I had thought, even if it took me about 20 minutes to stop wondering how an entire evening was going to be fleshed out from this madcap conceit.

"Altar Boyz" is a lark that miraculously doesn't peter out. Every time your interest sags, one of the five apostolically named young men (Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and, er, Abraham, whose yarmulke requires some explaining) has a moment of semi-divine inspiration. Yes, the delight is ephemeral, many of the yuks are duds, and the Wadsworth is too stiff a venue for this sort of springy entertainment. But even a confirmed atheist might find the show hard to resist once the lads start getting jiggy for Jesus.

With a book by Kevin Del Aguila and music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, the production parodies popular musical styles and attitudes with a brisk, evangelical fervor.

Naturally, there's a gimmick: For each stop in their "Raise the Praise" tour, the group employs a mystical machine that can detect how many in the audience are facing eternal damnation.

The Boyz pull out all the stops to redeem every last one of us (suffice it to say, we have an unusually high number of imperiled Angelenos in our midst), moving among hip-hop, rap, Latin sound and the most overworked rock anthems to lift our spirits into the light.

Along the way, we're given a short history of the fab faith-based five, who despite their prayers haven't quite become the new New Kids on the Block. Fortunately, the tale of these Top 40 wannabes whizzes by with the help of Stafford Arima's smooth direction and Christopher Gattelli's kinetic choreography, and the sendup winks so genially that only a zealot would take offense.

Matthew (a magnetic Matthew Buckner) is the Justin Timberlake of the group. Sporting a sleeveless muscle tee with a crucifix design on the front, he croons up to heaven while keeping an eye on his squealing fans below. He's trying to save souls but in the process doesn't mind glorying in a little earthly adulation.

Strangely, Matthew barely notices the fanatical attention of his bandmate Mark (Ryan J Ratliff), a Clay Aiken type in cranberry jeans and a fey powder blue top who appears to have a halo of valentines around him every time he's near. Not that Mark has anything to hide, of course. When he does come out, in the rousingly belted song "Epiphany," it's as a Catholic -- from a thuggishly intolerant Episcopalian town.

Luke (Jesse JP Johnson), fresh from rehab after another bout of "exhaustion," comes off as the tough guy. Yet for all his bluster, it's easy to imagine him breaking down in tears if Eminem, Vanilla Ice or one of his other rapping white idols ever threw him a big up.

Juan (Jay Garcia), a cross between Enrique Iglesias and Ricky Martin, must suffer the most inane ethnic jokes, and his hyperactive "La Vida Eternal" number, sorry to say, doesn't provide adequate comic compensation

As a Jew, Abraham (Nick Blaemire) probably shouldn't be in the Altar Boyz, but he was just too awesome a songwriter to turn down. When the loyalty of the members is tested with solo recording contracts, he'll be the one to teach the others the true meaning of a mensch -- I mean, Christian brother.

Who is all this silliness for? Theatergoers with a taste for camp who want only to be diverted.

Credit the creators and the talented cast for turning a critic into a reluctant believer.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

*

`Altar Boyz'

Where: Wadsworth Theater, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., West Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Feb. 25

Price: $28 to $58

Contact: (213) 365-3500 or (714) 740-7878

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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