The Altar Boyz are back, and for diehard Los Angeles fans of this fictional Christian boy band, a hop, skip, and a jump down to San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre provides the first chance in over two years to spend an hour and a half being concertized by five of the cutest, sexiest, and most praise-raising triple-threats ever to share a musical theater stage.

 There’s nothing about the 2005-2010 off-Broadway smash 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, *NSYNC, 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, and a few 2012 updates like referencing Twitter and Facebook make this Altar Boyz more relevant than ever.

 “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. Matthew (Hanz Enyeart) is the group’s sexy lead singer, Mark (Hunter Schwarz) is the cluelessly (though not so ambiguously) gay boy next door, Luke (Shaun Tuazon) is the tough-guy B-boy with a heart of mush, Juan (Patrick Mayuyu) is the band’s requisite Latino (with Ricky Ricardo accent to match), and Abraham “He’s Jewish!” (Nicholas Sloan) gives the Chosen People their very own Altar Boy to scream about. Yes, these are stereotypes, but 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, just in case Mark’s butt-thrusting 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 the Boyz illustrate with fitness club-ready athleticism. 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!

 Overlooking 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 Diversionary audience. As souls are saved, the number drops from the initial 99, 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.”

Altar Boyz at the Diversionary is the creative brainchild of producer-director Noah Longton, whose suggestion that San Diego’s LGBT theater program a two-week run (between the recent World Premiere musical Harmony, Kansas and the upcoming Pippin revival) proves an inspired one. Longton’s innovative direction makes this Altar Boyz seem fresh and new, even to someone who’s seen as many productions as this reviewer. (Six so far … and counting).

Associate producer/choreographer Michael Mizerany’s from-the-ground-up choreography is equally exciting, integrating rhythmic genuflecting and signs of the cross into the Boyz’ *NSYNC-ready moves and grooves.

As for Longton’s hand-picked cast, not only are they as age-appropriate as any Altar Boyz I’ve seen, each and every one does thoroughly winning work.

Enyeart’s lean, striking good looks and sex appeal make him an ideal choice for head heartthrob Matthew, a role he sings and dances with boy band flair, charm, and charisma.

 17-year-old Schwarz’s mix of flamboyance and baby-faced innocence are just right for a Mark who may not yet have figured out the meaning of his schoolboy crush on Matthew. As for Mark’s 11th hour “Epiphany,” Schwarz makes it every bit the showstopper it’s meant to be.

(Longton gives Mark some of the production’s most inspired “business,” take for instance the way he oh-so naturally hikes his choir robe way up above the seat of his jeans when reaching down to pick something up. Schwarz even gets laughs for the simple act of sitting down, again and again, in one of choreographer Mizerany’s slyest moves.)

 Tuazon is a spunky, cute-as-a-button, sharper-than-usual Luke, who can bust a rhyme (or a move) with the best of them, including some gravity-defying hand-and-headstands.

Mayuyu plays Juan muy, muy broadly—and it works, giving the Tijuana-born orphan the most irresistible Espanish accent since Ricky told Lucy she had some “splainin’” to do. (Calling Diversionary Theatre “De Virgin Mary” Theatre is brilliant.) Mayuyu happens also to be a phenomenal dancer (as are his four fellow chicoz) and also quite a vocalist (ditto).

  Completing the cast is Sloan’s oh-so personable Abraham, the band’s outsider and ironic observer of all things Christian. He too proves a charmer, and never more so than when leading his fellow Boyz in “Everybody Fits” with a yarmulke-sporting Lamb Chop hand puppet.

Sean Laperruque gets top marks for his musical direction, and for conducting and playing keyboards in the live four-piece band, joined by fellow keyboardist Tony Houck, guitarist Kevin Jones, and drummer Chris Weller. Enyeart, Schwarz, Tuazon, Mayuyu, and Sloan perform unamplified, which works when singing in five-part harmony but not so well in solo numbers. Pop songs like Adler & Walker’s are meant to be miked, and having to belt out each and every note in order to be heard over the band is less than optimum for a cast that shouldn’t have to be straining to hit the highest, loudest notes.

 Rebecca Noland’s costumes are clever, imaginative designs as are her props, especially the five Lamb Of God puppets. High marks go too to technical director Michael Hoffman’s simple but effective set design and appropriately flashy lighting.  David Medina contributed additional prop design.  Ashley Hoffman is stage manager.

With just a handful of performances remaining in Altar Boyz’ all too brief run, Boyz lovers will not want to miss out on the chance to catch Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham before closing afternoon next Sunday. As for those who have yet to fall under Altar Boyz’ spell, you won’t want to miss this blink-and-you-miss-them chance to let the heavenly fivesome “altar your mind.”

Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
August 12, 2012
Photos: Manuel Rotenberg

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