Uptown’s ‘Altar Boyz’ is tuneful, silly, sexy — and surprisingly spiritual
If you’ve ever been buttonholed at a party or on the light rail by a sweet-natured but devout Christian proselytizer, you know how uncomfortable it can be for both of you: He’s basically nice and shiny-faced, talking about Jesus; you’re trying to get out of it without seeming like a jerk.
So how do you make an entire musical about that and not send audiences running for the exits?
You produce "Altar Boyz."
An off-Broadway hit, it skates a fine line between satire and respect for its subject. There are pop songs about religion that manage to be wickedly funny ("God put the rhythm in me" is one refrain… eventually shortened to "put it in me") but never sardonic and cynical. Imagine: A musical perfect for church groups and atheists. There may be miracles yet.
The Altar Boyz are the five members of a Christian boy band — Matthew (Alexander Ross), Mark (Drew Kelly), Luke (Brian Daniels), Juan (Angel Velasco) and Abraham (Michael Tuck) ("he’s Jewish!" they remind us) — on the last night of their low-rent Raise the Praise Tour 2009. They’ve been savin’ souls old school, in church basements and county fairs, with their bubblegum songs about sexual abstinence ("Girl, you make me wanna wait") and the paradise of the afterlife ("La Vita Eternal"). The hokeyness could gag you.
But the gimmick that makes "Altar Boyz" work is that it doesn’t mock religion so much as it mocks boy-band culture: The "look," the studied diversity of the members (a Latino, a bad-boy, a heartthrob, etc.), the interchangeability of the songs. But it also executes these elements as well as *NSync ever did.
In some ways, the actors who make up the Altar Boyz are brilliantly bland and un-hip. A white guy (Luke) who tries to sound like Snoop Dogg is always good for a few laughs; his break dancing is just good enough to look learned, but not so good as to indicate real soul. It’s as if Opie became Vanilla Ice.
Which is not to say they aren’t all adorable and marvelously talented. As Matthew, Ross makes for a perfect teen-idol leader: Strappingly tall, handsome and vaguely clueless. It’s no wonder Mark (the Lance Bass of the group) is not-so-secretly in love with him, which Kelly plays to the hilt, throwing daggers at the girl brought onstage for a love ballad while swishing his way through the dances. Velasco brings some sex appeal and depth to the bordering-on-stereotype Juan.
Director Cheryl Denson and choreographer John de los Santos play up to comedy, with dance steps that make hilarious illusions to "Thriller," the Robot, Britney and more, and a perky chipper tone.
"Altar Boyz" is as guiltily entertaining as an "American Idol" marathon. All that’s missing is Adam Lambert and a snarky British guy. Maybe Uptown could add Paula Abdul in somewhere; I hear she’s available.
KD Studio Theatre, 2600 N. Stemmons Freeway. Through Sept 6. $25â€“$30. Uptownplayers.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 7, 2009.