Stage review: When it comes to praise for 'Altar Boyz,' raise it
October 7, 2015 12:00 AM
Mason Alexander Park.
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Take a Christian boy band with heavenly dance moves and harmonies, mix with individual quirks and heavy doses of humor, and you have some concept of “Altar Boyz.”
The key to the show is casting with a Simon Cowell-like eye for compatibility and star-making, and in that, the “Altar Boyz” production, now at CLO Cabaret, has had divine inspiration.
Where: Cabaret at Theater Square, Downtown.
When: Through Dec. 20. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday (plus 1 p.m. Oct. 29, Nov. 19 and Dec. 17); 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $34.75-$44.75; clocabaret.com or 412-456-6666.
The quintet comprises two current students (one a new-old pro) and two recent graduates of Point Park University and a Pittsburgh CLO veteran. They have come together as believable longtime friends and perform with an exuberance that is contagious.
Michael James comes straight out of Point Park to make a splashy debut as Matthew, the leader of the band and the unrequited object of Mark’s affection. Flamboyant Mark is played by Mason Alexander Park, who as the evil Miss Andrew in Pittsburgh CLO’s recent “Mary Poppins” was a standout in nontraditional casting. He can sing and dance, certainly, and has the comic timing of an old pro. His declaration in the song “Epiphany” is a highlight.
Carter Ellis, another Point Park grad, portrays the nerdy yarmulke-wearing Abraham. His being Jewish is accepted without comment, but his falling into patterns of hip-hop speak earns blank stares. Javier Manente as the heavily accented Juan is a senior at the Downtown university who meets the challenge of an emotional role that’s played for laughs in its extremes.
The veteran of several Pittsburgh CLO productions is muscle-bound Michael Greer as Luke, a true believer who recently has been in rehab for “exhaustion.” He sings like an angel, speaks like a street tough and moves like a finalist on “So You Think You Can Dance?” His next move after “Altar Boyz” is “Guys and Dolls” at the Public.
Under the guidance of off-Broadway “Altar Boyz” director Carlos Encinias, employing the original choreography by Tony winner Christopher Gattelli (“Newsies”), CLO’s Boyz have formed a concert-ready pop band. The Boyz deliver high-voltage energy to the Cabaret at Theater Square on group song-and-dance numbers such as “Rhythm in Me” and flash charisma when it’s time to go solo.
The 90-minute show without intermission is presented as the final concert of the Raise the Praise tour for the Altar Boyz of Greenville, Ohio. Their personal dramas build to a fever pitch as they help audience members by using the Soul Sensor DX-12 — a monitor that indicates the number of troubled souls present — while turning heavenward for guidance.
One member of the audience will be chosen to be serenaded to, so watch for the charming Mr. James if he’s headed your way.
The three-piece band onstage, led by Robert Neumeyer on keyboards, is centered within a raked semicircle that gives the Boyz room to roam. The whole is lit by Carnegie Mellon grad student Keith A. Truax to produce a concert atmosphere.
Five in harmony is a formula that has worked for boy bands including ’N Sync, Backstreet Boys, One Direction (with Zayn). It’s a lucky number for the group who struck gold with “Altar Boyz,” conceived by Ken Davenport and Marc Kessler. With music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker and a book by Kevin del Aguila, “Altar Boyz” won the 2005 Outer Critics Circle Award as top off-Broadway musical. It closed Jan. 10, 2010, after 2032 performances, and has been oft-produced nationwide ever since.
The religious references that permeate the musical are a mixed bag of tropes and truisms, depending on your beliefs. The pre-“Book of Mormon” show has a song with the same title and refrain, “I Believe,” and there are other ways you can see its influence on that satirical juggernaut.
What sets “Altar Boyz” apart is an endearing sincerity even when its aim is the big laugh and a charismatic group of guys going at full tilt to lift your spirits.
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960.
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