All praise Long Wharf's 'Altar Boyz'
by David A. Rosenberg

The boyz are in the building. Sending up both peach-fuzz groups like the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync as well as Christian rockers, Long Wharf’s summer show, the award-winning “Altar Boyz,” is a cheerful 90 minutes of vigorous dancing, driving music and satirical lyrics.

In Kevin Del Aguila’s loose, purposely idiotic libretto, the boyz’s mission is to save souls – a particularly hard task, we’re told, in sinful New Haven. A “soul sensor” with an LED display “takes the metaphysical temperature of the room” by toting up the number of people still in need of salvation.

Named Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and Abraham (the token Jew), the boyz pound out the Gary Adler / Michael Patrick score with a sincerity as infectious as their energy. In “The Calling,” Jesus communicates with Matthew via cellphone (“No roaming charges were incurred”). In “La Vida Eternal,” orphaned Juan channels Ricky Martin as he envisions the after-life as a place where “harps are playing in great harmony / And angels with halos are all you will see.”

Take “Epiphany,” Mark’s juicy number. Having confessed his yearning for Matthew, he unapologetically comes out of the closet in an unexpected “I am -- a Catholic and I’m proud,” launching into a “we-are-your-neighbors” anthem about whatever he is “was meant to be.”

As the resident group leader and stud, Matthew mocks his own sexuality. Singing “Something About You” to a good-sport audience member, he pushes abstinence while turning her on (“I believe in God and so I must abstain”). Luke is a good-natured, dim galoot, fresh out of rehab and determined to kick bad habits, while Abraham’s own big number is backed by four puppets that knock off Shari Lewis’ famous Lambchop.

With tongue-in-cheek direction by Stafford Arima and choreography by Christopher Gattelli (both did the New York production, now in its fourth year), the boyz are as accomplished as they are lovable. Philip Drennen (Matthew), Dan Scott (Mark), Anton Fero (Luke), Andres Quintero (Juan) and Tim Dolan (Abraham) wring every note dry. Backed by Doug Katsaros and Lynne Shankel’s roof-raising orchestrations and Lee Harris’ spirited four-piece band, they truly, as one lyric has it, “bust a move.”

True, some words get lost in the over-amplification. Yet what comes through is at once ironic and touching, opting for inclusion, not intolerance, as in “Everybody Fits”:

“It doesn’t matter
If you’re different and out of place
It doesn’t matter
If there’s acne upon your face,
Take my hand and then you will see
Everybody fits in God’s great family.”

This review appeared in The Hour, July 20, 2008

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