Book by Kevin Del Aguila
Music and Lyrics by Gary Adler & Michael Patrick Walker
Conceived by Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport
Directed by Stafford Arima
Dodger Stages / 340 West 50th Street / (212) 239-6200
Reviewed by David Spencer

Of those that survive in the canon, there are musicals that are well-wrought and then there are a (small) number of gimmick shows that hump a clever, comic idea with a kind of giddiness that verges on, or fullout plunges into, less meticulously conceived camp (i.e. "Nunsense", "Forever Plaid", etc.). Rarely, though—maybe never?—has there been a gimmick show that is truly as well-wrought in the craftsmanship of book and score as it is cleverly lunatic…but "Altar Boyz" may well be the exception; or as close to it as God allows.

And The Man Upstairs is not invoked lightly here, because the five young men described by the title are a Christian boy band.

Their message may be deep, but their story is not. This engaging group of extreme archetypes, named (natch) for saints—lead hunk Matthew (Scott Porter), don’t-ask-don’t-tell angelboy Mark (Tyler Maynard), yo-Adrian street tough Luke (Andy Karl), overwrought Latino Juan (Ryan Duncan) and Jew-for-Jesus Abraham (David Josefsberg)—have arrived in New York City for the last stop on their tour. (The show is written, of course, such that any town in which it plays can be inserted into the dialogue as the last stop). Sponsored by Sony, the group has brought with them a brand new, state-of-the-art electronic device, the Sony Soul Sensor, strong enough to survey a theatre and determine how many of its occupants have received the Word. Counting down from the number of non-believers (of course the start number matches the theatre’s seat count)—we’re lookin’ to end the evening on a zero—it tracks the effectiveness of The Goy Boys in the Band as they deliver the message (as relates to belief, parable, moral code and etc.) in song after song. As traditional for a concert-that-really-isn’t-a-concert, songs are motivated just as much by the interpersonal and interior dramas as by pre-programming (to use what in this context is a charged term).

There is a kind of brilliance to the way the show straddles true belief and parody, which is to say that if the multiple authors (credited above) have an arched-eyebrow view of the proceedings and the Christian music genre, the characters within the show do not. Even the most outrageous moments are played for sincere stakes (what, indeed, could be more sincere than the intended salvation of your immortal soul)—and though, while I suppose I’m not an ideal one to generalize (I’m a Jew-who-isn’t-particularly-against-Jesus), I had the thought that all but the most tight-assed and humorless fundamentalists would be unable to smile along with everyone else. The show’s target is not, after all, faith or even the faithful—but rather the extreme conventions of a relatively new entertainment genre.

Considering how closely the show keeps flirting with the traps inherent in a one-joke premise, the score is a surprisingly versatile (music) and funny (lyric) one—and it does no harm that all five actors are expert at comedy, musicianship and—so it would seem from the way they execute Christopher Gatelli’s infectiously high-(holy)-spirited choreography—dance as well.

All this said, I don’t mean to overstate the case or oversell the event: in the final analysis, "altar Boyz" is a gimmick show, a really tasty snack rather than a truly filling meal.

But snacks have their place too, and the difference between Little Debbie and Entenmann’s is the difference between most novelty musicals and "Altar Boyz". Especially the hot cross buns. And do, please, take that literally…

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