The Altar Boyz: Saved At Last, Dude!
It was disappointing that only fifty people showed up for a recent matinee performance of Long Wharf’s brash and satisfying escapade in simulated salvation, The Altar Boyz. You don’t have to be a revival tent enthusiast to enjoy this show. Just see it and soak up all the talent you’ll see on plentiful display. Praise the Lord’s bounty on stage!
In case you haven’t noticed, even the high moral ground comes packaged these days in formats that appeal to a youthful sensibility. The current show follows in the footsteps of ice breakers like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s a bouncing, high energy, in your face musical about a five member boy band from Ohio so taken with the biblical message of redemption, they’re quite prepared to help the audience monitor itself for signs of moral lapse. Their version of keeping tabs on souls wandering away from the fold is the “Soul Censor DX-12,” a barometer of venial and mortal sin, courtesy of Sony.
The censor opens the show reading “059,” a number progressively lessened as imagined audience members are exhorted to relieve themselves of sinful ways, one by one—as registered in the censor readings posted visibly enough for all to see. The transformation proceeds in sync with homilies belted out rock style by the cast.
Praising God in this show is in “funk and rhyme.” A solo number by one of the committed five celebrates how technology is capable of furthering the righteous groove: “Jesus called me on my cell phone.”
It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and if after seeing this show, you start speaking in tongues, or dismiss it all in an agnostic mood, you’ve missed the enjoyment of what, in the last analysis, is actually a spoof on the way most of us imagine how holy we can get when we put our minds to it.
The lively five go by the names of Mark, Matthew, Luke (a famous threesome, for those of us familiar with New Testament Synoptic gospels), Abraham (a Jewish youngster still well within the overarching Abrahamic religious fold), and Juan (a Latino, just in case we are likely to forget about another committed Catholic constituency).
Make no mistake about it. Even if you’re not up for fire and brimstone sermons, you still can’t fail to get caught up in the enthusiasm of five talented performers, backed up by a terrific rock band (with Lee Harris and Chris Crucio on keyboard, Jay Raymond on guitar, and Mia Eaton on percussion) doing their thing.
When you pare down some of the clichéd-ridden dialogue, you still have darn good song and dance numbers delivered by a group of accomplished triple-threat performers. These include Philip Drennen as Matthew, Dan Scott as Mark, Andreas Quintero as Juan, Tim Dolan as Abe, and Anton Fero as Luke.
These performers represent an assortment of characters, from Matthew, the principal spokesman of the group, to Mark, who struggles with his being gay, to Juan, whose Hispanic pronunciation of “You” as “Jew” occasionally puts Abraham, the Jewish member of the group, on the defensive, to Luke, whose acrobatic abilities represent the best in Hip-Hop, including all those marvelous dance stunts that make the orthopedic disasters among us wallow in jealousy.
A less promising aspect of The Altar Boyz is Mr. Del Aguila’s book, a sometime catastrophe of corny ripostes, sophomoric humor, and dopey one-liners plastered over some fairly impressive vocal and dance numbers.
Will we never tire of a character (Matthew) whose role it is to descend into the audience to bring one of its elderly members on stage in order to embarrass her with suggestive questions, innuendos, and a manufactured love song everyone knows is pure simulation?
And how do we manage to warm up to humor that consists in Juan appearing in a serape, or Abraham being refused a request for a “cracker” that turns out to be a communion wafer, or having his hand puppet—unlike those of the other four characters—sporting a yarmulke and tallas? Or everyone becoming downcast after a birthday party for Juan, whose present is the discovery of the whereabouts of his lost parents, although it turns out they’re buried in Bakersfield, California? Or the discovery that our singing heroes have, one by one, committed a Judas act of betrayal consisting in—wouldn’t you know—selling out the others in the group by signing on to solo recording deals?
At the eleventh hour, of course, each of them renounces his dastardly concession to the music industry to come together once more in holy unity. Sermon on the Mount it isn’t.
When all is said and done, there’s something to be said for discerning an aspect of God’s gift to us in the natural talent on display in the lives of gifted performers who do what they do best—minus the inane dialogue that sometimes saddles their best efforts.
The Altar Boyz runs at Long Wharf Theatre’s Mainstage at 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, from July 8 to September 13, 2008. Tickets may be purchased by calling (203)-787-4282. Website: www.longwharf.org
(This review appears in New Fairfield’s Citizen News)