Charmingly tongue-in-cheek ‘Altar Boyz’ is equal parts backsliding and Backstreet
By Celia Wren,
Is there room on your smartphone for a soul-sensor app? You might hanker for one after attending “Altar Boyz,” the musical that’s larking about at 1st Stage in Tysons Corner. The show’s characters, who constitute a Christian boy band, possess just such an app — and they seem to be having such a blast, as they bop in and out of their faith-drenched tunes, that you may covet both their energy and their telecommunications assets.
“Altar Boyz,” of course, is the highly tongue-in-cheek mock concert that ran for 2,032 performances after opening off-Broadway in 2005. Written by book author Kevin Del Aguila and composer/lyricists Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, the show introduces us to bandmates Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and Abraham: five crush-worthy, Ohio-raised youngsters who want to power-pop their audience to salvation, passing through the eye of a needle if necessary. On the final night of their “Raise the Praise” tour, the lads treat us to numbers such as “Something About You” (with its memorable romantic lyric, “Girl, you make me wanna wait”) and “The Calling” (“Jesus called me on my cell phone / No roaming charges were incurred”). Periodically, one of the team checks the soul sensor, to see how many folks in the audience have sidled closer to heaven.
The “Altar Boyz” incarnation strutting its moves at 1st Stage has been updated for the era of Justin Bieber and the iPhone (originally, the soul sensor was a machine, not an app) — edits that enhance the overall mood of buoyant archness. It’s an atmosphere that director Steven Royal feels quite at home in. For 90 minutes, he keeps the songs, patter and heartfelt confessions rollicking along, allowing the jokes to register without overkill, and maintaining a good balance between satire and charm.
Royal also designed the set: a stage and flight of gleaming silver steps, with nooks for the onstage band (led by the production’s music director, Walter “Bobby” McCoy, at one set of keyboards). The area is often drenched in stained-glass-colored rock-concert spotlights, courtesy of lighting designer David A. Sexton.
After the Boyz make a loopily stagey entrance in the show’s first number, we acclimate to their personas, which are as sharply defined as an Entertainment Weekly cover line. As Matthew, the cute group leader, actor B.J. Gruber radiates the right air of matinee-idol confidence, with his spiky hair, engaging grin and cross tattoo. Zack Powell is endearingly dweeby as Abraham, the yarmulke-sporting kid who was recruited because he can actually write lyrics.
Derek Tatum swaggers around amusingly as Luke, the inarticulate bad boy, who’s been in rehab for “exhaustion”; and Jonathan Walker, who has tremendously agile eyebrows, does some aptly innocent leering as Juan. Turning in the best vocal performance, Edward C. Nagel depicts the sensitive Mark, who may be gay and may not know it — or so the musical implies in moments that tiptoe up to the brink of revelation, before slyly ducking away.
The gospel-armed-heartthrob illusion wouldn’t be complete without Jeremy McShan’s witty choreography, with its seesawing shoulders, synchronized head swivels, jumping-jack stances and other kinetics. Such dance moves suggest divinely reinforced adolescent exuberance — or else a whopping record-label contract waiting in the wings.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, book by Kevin Del Aguila, conceived by Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport. Direction, set and costume design by Steven Royal; sound, Derek V. Knoderer; special effects, Zack Sanders. About 90 minutes. Through Dec. 30 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd., Tysons Corner. Visit www.1ststagetysons.org or call 703-854-1856.