Those Altar Boyz are back, and there’s no one happier about the news than I am.  Since discovering the Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording in 2005 (which I’ve listened to more times that I could possibly count), I’ve had the thrill of seeing the show’s First National Tour, two regional productions—and now Altar Boyz’ first L.A. intimate theater staging at the Celebration Theatre.  Directed by Patrick Pearson and choreographed by Ameenah Kaplan, with musical direction by Christopher Lloyd Bratten, and starring five sensational young triple threats, this may well be the best Altar Boyz yet.  

There’s nothing about Altar Boyz that I don’t love, beginning with Kevin Del Aguila’s clever, absolutely hilarious book, which envisions the final performance of the eponymous Christian boy band’s national “Raise the Praise” tour.  Then there are Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker’s songs, almost every one of which could (with “secular” lyrics) have been a hit single for Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, or 98 Degrees. The songwriting duo’s compositions are catchy and original as all get-out with lyrics like “Jesus called me on my cell phone.  No roaming charges were incurred,” “It doesn’t matter if you’re yellow or white or red. It doesn’t matter if you’re pregnant and you’re unwed,” and “Your rosary’s hid in your sock drawer.  You sneak into church through the back door.” Yes, Altar Boyz is irreverent, but never anything but affectionate in its satire.  Only those lacking a sense of humor could feel offended.

“We Are The Altar Boyz” introduces the band’s five members, and like every boy band, each Altar Boy is a particular type, the better to appeal to the broadest demographic possible. Lead singer Matthew (Jesse Bradley) is the boy next door, Mark (Clifford Bañagale) is the gay boy next door, Luke (Jake Wesley Stewart) is the thug wannabe with a heart of mush, Juan (Robert Acinapura) is the token Latino (for the Menudo crowd), and Abraham “He’s Jewish!” (Kelly Rice) the token non-Christian. Yes, they’re stereotypes, and where’s the sin in that? 

“Rhythm In Me” explains the Altar Boyz’ raison d’être: “You know the Bible tells you God’s the one that made you, so get out on the dance floor and shake what He gave you!” and features Mark’s double-entendrelicious “Put it in me!”, “it” being rhythm, in case Mark’s butt-in-the-air poses make you think something else.  “Church Rulez” features a refrain (“Stand up, kneel, sit down, stand up, kneel, sit down, stand up, kneel, sit down, stand up, kneel, sit down, stand up, kneel, sit down …”) so exhausting to demonstrate that even the fittest Altar Boy may want to throw in the stool he’s been using to illustrate these “rulez.” The funky “The Miracle Song” and “Body, Mind, Soul” have the Altar Boyz in hip hop mode, featuring Luke’s “I know, I know, y’all thinkin ‘Chill Luke, I ain’t tryna hear that.’ Well you better open your mind.” You tell’em Luke!

Hanging above the stage throughout the Boyz’ farewell concert is the “Soul Sensor DX-12,” a state-of-the-art electronic device which counts and displays the number of as yet unsaved souls in the Celebration audience.  As souls are saved, the number drops, though occasional slip-ups do occur, as when a surprise birthday party for Juan has unexpected consequences.  Fear not, though.  The Altar Boyz won’t give up until every last one of the theater’s 99 souls are saved, even if it means a teensy weensy little exorcism entitled “Number 918.”

The Celebration production is a perfect introduction to Altar Boyz for anyone who’s not seen it off-Broadway (where it’s still running), on tour, or anywhere else for that matter.  It’s also must-see musical theater for Altar Boyz fanatics like myself, no matter how many different productions you’ve seen before.  The reason is simple.  Neither the director nor the choreographer nor the musical director nor four of the five Boyz have seen the show in any of its previous incarnations.  In the hands of lesser talents, this could have proven disastrous, but director Pearson is the genius behind last year’s brilliant staging of A New Brain, Kaplan is an innovative, award-winning choreographer, Bratten a musical virtuoso, and the Boyz themselves five of the most talented singer-dancer-actors you’re likely to see on any stage this year.  If this Altar Boyz feels brand new, it’s because in many ways it is.

The Celebration Altar Boyz, none of whom appear to be out of their early 20s, really look like they could be a boy band (and at least one actually has boy band credentials). They don’t miss a beat of Kaplan’s high-energy choreography, and this is a show in which every single song features accompanying dance moves—and five-part harmony.  

Bradley is a more boyish Matthew than those I’ve seen before, more Nick Carter than Lachey, and it works.  You can easily imagine teen girls (and more than a few teen boys) with Bradley’s picture on their walls. Bradley gives a charismatic, thoroughly winning performance which more than bears out the promise he showed as the megalomaniacal children’s TV host Mr. Bungee in A New Brain, though the recent Cal State Fullerton grad gets to be considerably nicer this time around.

Bañagale’s Mark is less flamboyantly “Catholic” than others who’ve played the role, but this too works, his stage persona being of necessity more “straight acting” than when he lets his guard down, as he frequently does when in the presence of Matthew. (Wait till you see Bañagale’s revenge on the female audience member who’s been serenaded by Bradley only moments before.)  Bañagale gets the show’s glorious power ballad “Epiphany,” which he sings and performs the heck out of, eliciting simultaneous laughter and tears from this reviewer.

As Luke, Jake Wesley Stewart continues the roll he’s been on since 2007’s City Kid. (See our interview with Jake.) Whether rapping in his best East Coast accent or doing his darndest to figure out stuff that the others get in just seconds or dancing to Kaplan’s fast-paced hip-hop moves, Stewart makes the part all his own.  This Luke is the tough guy you’re glad is on your side, a friend who’ll stick with you thick or thin, and a perfect fit for the versatile and talented Stewart.

Acinapura has great fun with the role of Latin heartthrob Juan, who delights in being the only Altar Boy who gets to show off his biceps and whose eye is forever making contact with attractive audience señoritas. Like his fellow Boyz, Acinapura is a sizzling dancer and a fine singer, and he makes you feel Juan’s very real pain when he gets some terrible news on what ought to be the happiest day of the year for him.

Finally there’s the adorable Rice as Abraham, making the most of the only underwritten role in the show. The closest poor Abe even gets to having his own song is in the final number, “I Believe,” and even there he only gets to solo the first eight lines, but Rice makes the most of every one of them, in a gorgeous tenor trained in the Pentecostal church (don’t tell his fellow Boyz that Abe is only Jewish for pay) and various boy bands.  This was my first time seeing dance captain Rice in a show and hopefully it will not be the last.

Altar Boyz proves that director Pearson’s A New Brain and Songs From An Unmade Bed were no mere flukes.  Pearson is a major directorial talent, and one the Celebration is lucky to have among its members.  Time and time again, Pearson’s imaginative choices make this Altar Boyz seem fresh and new. The same can be said for Kaplan’s sensational choreography, which owes not a lick to any moves the Altar Boyz have done before.  With Pearson and Kaplan at the helm, even those who’ve seen Altar Boyz a dozen or more times (and you know you’re out there) will find this production a whole new experience.

Bratton’s musical direction is flawless, as is the Boyz’ backup band: Bratton and Carson Schutze on keyboards, Adam Halitzka on guitar, and Nick Perez on drums. 

Kurt Boetcher’s scenic design is, as always, just right, turning the Celebration into a mini-rock concert venue and never distracting from the Boyz.  Matthew Schleicher’s lighting is rock concert ready, as is Eric Snodgrass’s sound design (at just the right volume, thank you!).  Finally, there are Michael Mullens’ terrific costumes, which give these Boyz a completely new look, a kind of Melrose Chic (though they are less body revealing than the clothes Altar Boyz have worn in other productions).  

Altar Boyz is the perfect opener for the Celebration’s 27th season.  It’s way gay enough to be an appropriate choice for L.A.’s LGBT theater, yet has the greatest crossover appeal of any Celebration show in memory. Considering that the National Tour filled the 1378-seat Wadsworth Theatre, and the first regional did the same at Long Beach’s 1,074-seat Carpenter Center, all the Celebration has to do is get the word out beyond their subscriber and core audience base (and raves like David Ng’s in the L.A. Times will certain help with that) and Altar Boyz could easily be the Celebration’s biggest hit since Pinafore and Naked Boys Singing.  And THESE boys don’t have to take their clothes off to sell out (and bring down) the house!

Get the word out!  The Altar Boyz are back!

Running late nights (at 10:30) following Friday and Saturday performances of Altar Boyz is this “Best Of” compilation of previous Celebration sketch comedy shows, and it’s an all-around winner, a good 85% of the skits downright hilarious. It includes Mike Tauzin’s wonderful Spelling Bee playlet, and is by far the gayest sketch comedy show I’ve seen at the Celebration (and isn’t that as it should be?).  In addition to Tauzin, the show also features StageSceneLA faves Jason Moyer, Kelly Schumann, Sarah Taylor, and a host of other zanies under the direction of Rob Mello and Todd Milliner.

Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd.,Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
July 17, 2009
                                                                           Photos: Michael Joseph

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