Pop parody, faux-faith merge in Cabrillo Stage’s energetic ‘Altar Boyz’
To kick off its 2014 summer musical theater season, Cabrillo Stage delivers a terrific production of an oddball show, Altar Boyz. A long- running hit that ran off-Broadway from 2005 to 2010, the show is designed as a revue-style jukebox musical; it purports to be a concert
by a fictitious, perfectly manicured and choreographed boy band of the era. The twist is that they’re selling a sunny Christian message, bumping and grinding for Jesus.
There’s not really a plot. The show unfolds in real time, like a concert (no intermission), the last stop on the group’s “Raise the Praise”
Tour. The Boyz are swoon-worthy Matthew (Jamen Nanthakumar), Mark (Curtis Reynolds), Luke (Jomar Martinez), Juan (Brian Conway) and Abraham (Jordan Sidfield). These characters are unabashed stereotypes—street kid Luke, Hispanic Juan, Mark with his puppy-dog crush on Matthew—but the excellent cast delivers them with plenty of heart and chutzpah. And Cabrillo Stage stalwart Janie Scott directs it all with breezy panache.
The show has a sly sense of the way Christianity, and specifically the Catholic Church, is retooling its brand with a lot of technology to reel in youthful converts. “Jesus Called Me On My Cell Phone” is one song, and tweets from JC#Heaven appear on the jumbo screens that flank the stage, while an onscreen “Soul Sensor DX-12” calculates the number of souls being saved in the audience as the show goes on. There’s even a guest appearance by the voice of God, warning them not to “skew to an older demographic, which I detesteth.”
Still, it’s often a strange mix, as the show tries to spoof some of the, er, thornier aspects of Christianity. There are fleeting jokes about faith-based obedience, religious intolerance (Abe says the only other Jew allowed in the church is the one nailed to the cross), and outlawed sex. (In “Something About You,” a love song to abstinence, Matthew barely stops short of confessing to the obvious alternative. In the same vein, Mark doesn’t quite dare confess to being gay; instead, he channels his sense of being out-of-synch into the religious-and-proud anthem, “I am … Catholic!”)
But the spoofiness is so sweet- natured, so determined not to offend the faithful, that it muddies the distinction of satire. Those hoping for more irony in the epiphanies of the last few numbers—or a tad more bite— won’t find it. If anything, the show’s original creators (music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, book by Kevin Del Aguila) have replicated a Christian boy band in such perfect detail, it feels like proselytizing for real.
None of which detracts from the great pleasure of the actors’ high-octane performances in this production. Nanthakumar anchors the show as heartthrob/ leader Matthew, crooning to a female fan plucked out of the audience. Reynolds charms as relentlessly peppy Mark; he also does a hilarious riff on the tortured vibrato vocalizations so popular in mainstream pop. Conway’s flirty, flamboyant Juan; Martinez’s hip- hopping, sweetly bewildered Luke; and Sidfield’s engagingly chipper Abraham all have their moments as well.
All five of these guys can sing and dance like crazy, in a demanding show that requires them to segue from Top-40 style pop harmonies and precision choreography into rap, break- dancing, gospel, and simmering Latino salsa. Special kudos are also due to the five-man onstage band, under the director of conductor and keyboardist Max Bennett-Parker. They back up the Boyz throughout and keep the music fresh and flowing.
The Cabrillo Stage production of Altar Boyz plays through July 13 at the Crocker Theater, Cabrillo College. For tickets and information call (831) 479-6154, or visit cabrillostage.com.