Parody without parity

Posted on 18 Jan 2007 at 7:14pm
By Arnold Wayne Jones Staff Writer

“‘Altar Boyz’ gains another convert while “‘Underpants’ get a little soiled



SALVATION IN 4-4 TIME: Juan (Jay Garcia), Abraham (Nick Blaemire), Matthew (Matthew Buckner), Luke (Jesse JP Johnson) and Mark (Ryan J. Ratliff), save souls using five-part harmony.

There’s a thin line between musicals that act as loving tributes and those that serve as sarcastic parodies. “Dreamgirls,” a paean to Motown, is the former. Altar Boyz skewering boy bands even as it does a remarkable recreation of one is a hilarious example of the latter.

The premise is that an up-and-coming Christian rock group is giving the last concert of its tour, which is as much about saving souls as it is music: Think of it as the gospel according to ‘NSync.

“We praise the lord with funk and rhythm!” testifies Matthew (Matthew Buckner), the leader of these apostles of five-part harmony.

After all, when God tells you to anoint your hair with product and gird your loins in pleather, you obey.

The script trades on boy band stereotypes, but does so cleverly. All five members of the Boyz are down with Jesus, even though heartthrob Matthew is clueless that Mark (Ryan J. Ratliff) has a crush on him. With his tight-fitting magenta denim and fey hip-swishing, Mark makes Christopher Lowell look dangerously butch.

Luke (Jesse JP Johnson) is a tough-guy with a ‘do rag in the Marky Mark mold, all vacant grin and “yo, wassup!” attitude. Latin lover Juan (Jay Garcia) and Abraham (Nick Blaemire) the lone Jew in a Christian troupe round out the collection of pretty boys meant to set teen girls (and gay men) aflutter.

The risk of a musical parody is that, for the humor to work, the songs have to be cheesy but not so cheesy that they grate on you. But “Altar Boyz” succeeds on almost every level.

While some of the songs venture close to the edge of satiric implosion, none ever fully cross over, often because the lyrics are so hysterical, poking fun at religion, celebrity rehab, product placement, Clay Aiken all the best targets. “The Calling,” “Something About You,” “La Vida Eternal” (a Spanglish salsa number) and the opening song all score as music and as comedy.

The energy of the young, attractive cast amazes. In a quick 90 minutes, they sing 12 numbers (on Madonna mikes, natch) and dance as well as Gwen Stefani’s backups.

Ratliff gets some of the best moments. His refrain to “God Put the Rhythm in Me” (“Put it in me! Put it in me!”) is emblematic of the clever double entendres that permeate the show. Ratliff’s solo “Epiphany,” an anthem that could be a refugee from the score or “Rent,” is a legitimate showstopper that nearly brought audience members to their feet. Buckner’s voice falters on some of the notes, but he embodies the placid dreaminess of a pop singer wonderfully.

“Altar Boyz” isn’t deep stuff. But who needs profundity when you are fabulously entertaining? If church were really as tuneful and sexy as this show is, mass would always be standing room only.

If “Altar Boyz” is a divine comedy, then The Underpants is humor hell or at least a few performances make it seem so. That’s too bad, because the rest of the cast soldiers on with outrageous whimsy.

Set in Germany in 1910, the plot involves Louise (Emilie Buske) whose drawers drop just as the king marches by. Her husband Theo (Jeff Lawson), an impotent mid-level government clerk, worries that the notoriety may damage his career.

He doesn’t realize that it really threatens his marriage, as the scandal attracts two men unpublished poet Versati (Kevin Moore) and sickly barber Cohen (Nye Cooper) who lust after the brazen woman who dared flash some ankle in public.

Steve Martin’s adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s “Die Hose” is a traditional bedroom farce filtered through the prism of Janet Jackson and Nipplegate. It can be played as a quasi-realistic madcap comedy or all-out slapstick circus, and this version goes Keystone Kops all the way.

Moore, Cooper, Buske and Ashley Magness (playing a nosy neighbor whose make-up and hair resemble a Bavarian doll made to look like a prostitute) approach it with comedic abandon, hamming it up with brio. When they’re the focus of the fun, it works.

But Lawson is a black hole of comic timing a humor vacuum who sucks the funny right off the stage. With a voice flat as a Saturday morning anime cartoon and movements as tentative as a marionette, he’s the iceberg carving a deep gash in the hull of the production.

Cooper and Moore in particular bail water furiously, but the show barely stays afloat with Lawson and Gardner Williams (playing a curmudgeon in one brief scene) flubbing their lines. Even the Altar Boyz couldn’t save them.

“Altar Boyz,” Majestic Theatre, 1925 Elm St. Friday-Sunday at 8 p.m., weekend matinees at 2 p.m. $15-$60. 214-373-8000.

“The Underpants,” Theatre Arlington, 305 W. Main St., Arlington. Through Feb. 4. Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. $17. 817-275-7661.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 19, 2007

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