I have a confession to make. I’m in love with Altar Boyz. The Boyz themselves and the musical that bears their name.  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, Altar Boyz’ first L.A. intimate theater staging, and now, a sensational Altar Boyz #5 at Santa Ana’s OC Pavilion, a production which puts the Boyz back on the big stage where the shows probably fits best.

3-D Theatricals virtually guaranteed a Grade-A Altar Boyz from the moment they hired director/choreographer extraordinaire Troy Magino to helm the production, his raved about previous Altar Boyz’s at Musical Theatre West and Sierra Repertory Theatre making him an obvious choice to bring the Boyz to life for the third time—with a cast of first-timers who give their own fresh takes on Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham.

Anyone who knows me knows that 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 (Mark Shunock) is the quarterback/prom king, Mark (Jacob Haren) is Matthew’s adorably queeny sidekick, Luke (Shawn Perucca) is the street-smart rapper with a propensity to break in a break-dance, Spanish-accented Juan (Nathan Norrington) is the token Latino (for the Ricky Martin crowd, naturalmente), and Abraham “He’s Jewish!” (Louis Pardo) the token non-Christian, though as he points out, there’s one of his tribe hanging above the altar in just about every church. 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 …”), which Magino choreographs per its lyrics, giving the Boyz a real workout. 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!

Poised stage-right 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 OC Pavilion 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 159 souls are saved, even if it means a teensy weensy little exorcism entitled “Number 918.”

Before going into detail about Magino, his cast, and musical director John Glaudini’s inestimable contributions to 3-D’s Altar Boyz, mention should be made of this production’s brightest technical star—Jean-Yves Tessier’s rock concert-ready lighting.  From the moment the Boyz make their first appearance emerging like Angelz from a heavenly light, Tessier’s lighting turns the OC Pavilion into a rock concert hall, with spinning lasers shooting out into the audience as other lights fill the stage with iridescent rainbow hues.  “Number 918” in particular benefits from appropriately devilish green lasers twirling and whirling as the exorcism proceeds. 

Still, Staples Center-ready lighting would mean nothing if it weren’t for the sensational cast Magino has assembled, hardly a surprise considering the hundreds and perhaps thousands of aspiring male triple threats from L.A. to San Diego poised to star in the next Altar Boyz. 

Shunock brings a Nick Lachey quality to Matthew, and as a last-minute cast replacement who declares himself “not a dancer,” Shunock’s work is indeed noteworthy, including as a dancer. Hopefully, as the run continues, he’ll get to show more of Matthew’s group leader/romantic hearththrob oomph, but he’s doing darned fine work already.  Haren, less than a year out of high school, may be one of the youngest Marks ever, but he acts the part to flamboyant perfection, never holding back even a smidgen of the bleach-blond twink’s zest for the fabulous. If I missed hearing the high notes that can make Mark’s “Epiphany” Altar Boyz’ most show-stopping moment, in every other respect this is one terrific, cute, and talented #2 Boy.  Perucca, in his first full-length Southland production, is a revelation as Luke. (He’s appeared in plenty of variety theater roles at Hollywood’s El Capitan.)  The gifted triple-threat plays Luke sweeter, cuter, a bit less dumb than others have before—a fresh new take on the role and one that works.  As befits his to-die-for gymnast’s physique, Perucca does acrobatic dance feats that draw cheers, and needless to say he raps with the best.  Another scene stealer is Norrington’s Juan, the lanky charmer channeling every Latino cantante- bailarín from Ricky Ricardo to Ricky Martin, flirting shamelessly with audience señoritasand shaking his cuchi-cuchi with the best of them. Finally, reinventing Abraham with his goofy charm and long, curly locks, the one-of-a-kind Pardo fleshes out the underwritten role perhaps better than any Abe I’ve seen before, and more than holds his own with the more classically-featured members of the group in the teen appeal department.

Magino’s choreography is, as always, dazzling, and it’s fun for Altar Boyz aficionados like this reviewer to see how each choreographer creates new steps and moves for the Boyz to execute. Pay attention to the arm moves, just right for a Christian boy band, and to the way Magino gives each of the Boyz his own distinctive dance style.

A couple of the evening’s highlights are video inspired, with snaps to video producer/technician Ted Leib.  “The Calling” is sung live to a full-length music video of the song, shot with the cast inside, outside, and around the OC Pavilion, and on the beaches and streets of the OC, projected on giant screens on either side of the stage. The video is a treat in and of itself, as each Altar Boy shows off his own particular brand of “crunk.” (That’s a Matthew-coined amalgam of charisma and spunk.)  Later, video images illustrate “Everybody Fits” with photos of everyone from Oprah to Madonna to Bristol Palin (the latter, of course, for “pregnant and unwed”).

John Glaudini leads the rockin’ band.  James C. Mulligan’s multilevel set is a terrific one for an Altar Boyz concert and Magino has the Boyz occupying every inch of it at one time or another. Debbie Roberts’ costumes fit each of the Boyz’ images.  Julie Ferrin’s sound design mixes voices and band to perfection.  Kudos too to prop master RJ McDougall. Jenny Jacobs is production stage manager.

Following their freshman and sophomore stagings of Peter Pan and All Shook Up, 3-D Theatricals are now batting three out of three with Altar Boys.  You might say that 3-D Theatricals, Troy Magino, and Altar Boyz are a match made in Musical Theater Heaven!

3-D Theatricals, OC Pavilion, 801 N Main Street Santa Ana.

–Steven Stanley
April 2, 2010
                                                                             Photos: Alysa Brennan

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