The Christian boy band known as the Altar Boyz have returned to L.A. for the first time in five years in a no-frills production that proves that even without a fancy set, pricy costumes, and surround sound, entertainment value can remain high when performances sparkle under a director as imaginative as Kristin Towers-Rowles.
There is entertainment galore in the 2005-2010 off-Broadway smash Altar Boyz, 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 “God put sinners down in hell, cause they did not improve. God put the rhythm in me so I could bust a move,” “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.
“We Are The Altar Boyz” introduces the band’s five members, and like in every boy band, each Altar Boy is a particular type, the better to appeal to the broadest demographic possible. Matthew (Craig McEldowney) is the group’s charismatic lead singer, Mark (Michael Marchak) is the gay-boy-next-door who may not yet have figured out what the gay part means, Luke (Jason Chacon) is the tough-guy B-boy with a heart of mush, Juan (Joey Acuna) is the band’s requisite Latino (with Ricky Ricardo accent to match), and Abraham “He’s Jewish!” (Tyler Vess) 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 calisthenic moves.
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” (i.e. flat-screen TV monitor) which counts and displays the number of as yet unsaved souls in the assembled audience. As souls are saved, the number drops from the initial 69, 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 69 souls are saved, even if it means a teensy-weensy little exorcism entitled “Number 918.”
Altar Boyz Mid-City L.A. is the latest from Chromolume at the Attic, and like the recent Love Songs and The Musical Of Musicals (The Musical!), design elements are as bare-boned as they get in intimate L.A. theater. Daniel Ingram’s set consists pretty much of a raised platform for the band and little else, Craig Batory’s lighting only begins to suggest a rock concert’s flash, Wes Jenkins’ costumes, while character-appropriate, look like they could have come from the corner thrift store, and James Esposito’s sound design could stand a better blending of vocals and band, as lyrics get lost in the mix.
Fortunately, as she did in The Musical Of Musicals (The Musical!) and February’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the El Portal, director Towers-Rowles proves herself a talent to be reckoned with, an “Altar Boyz Unplugged” segment and a tip of the hat to Wicked’s “Defying Gravity” just a couple of Towers-Rowles innovations.
Altar Boyz reunites director with her Spelling Bee choreographer Samantha Marie, whose original dance steps make the Boyz’ moves and grooves seem fresh and new, if perhaps not quite as athletic as a larger stage would allow.
As for the Boyz themselves, they are a multi-talented bunch indeed, and particularly strong in the vocal department.
McEldowney’s Matthew may appear to have been in the boy band biz a few years longer than his bandmates, but his quirky good looks, charismatic appeal, and topnotch vocals make the band leader yet another McEldowney crowd-pleaser.
Hot-bodied charmer Marchak is not only one of the sexiest Marks ever, his mix of flamboyance and sincerity make the group’s flamingest member its most adorable. As for Mark’s 11th hour “Epiphany,” Marchak sells it like nobody’s business.
Chacon gives us a gentle-giant of a move-busting Luke, a big guy who might scare you at first glance but whose pure heart is sure to win him his own set of screaming female fans.
Acuna’s Juan may not be quite the hot-bodied Latino sex god you might have seen in previous Altar Boyz, but rarely has a Juan earned more laughs, particularly in a sequence that has the Tijuana-born boy bander attempting to off himself in more ways than one.
Completing the cast is Vess’s thoroughly lovable Abraham, the band’s outsider and ironic observer of all things Christian, a role that Vess invests with the heart and soul that made his recent featured turn in Simi Valley’s bare such a standout.
The boys deserve an extra round of applause for working extra hard (and breaking lots of sweat) in one of L.A.’s few un-air-conditioned theaters.
Richard Berent gets top marks for his musical direction, and for conducting and playing keyboards in the live three-piece band, down one keyboard from previous Altar Boyz.
Lauren J. Peters is stage manager and Alysha Bermudez assistant stage manager.
Though anyone who’s seen flashier, glitzier, bigger-budget Altar Boyz in years past will need to adjust expectations to fit this production’s more modest resources, the audience cheers inspired by its terrific cast are genuine and well-deserved. I for one am thrilled that the Altar Boyz are back in town.
Note: Understudies Holland Noël (Matthew), Kyle Shepard (Mark), Justin P. James (Luke), Charles Martinez (Juan), and Charles Simmons (Abraham) all have scheduled performance dates during the run.
Chromolume Theatre at the Attic. 5429 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles.
April 4, 2014
Photos: James Esposito