Review: ‘Altar Boyz’

"Altar Boyz" may not exactly be the musical that road producers were praying for, but they may be thankful for the tour of this small-scale spoof about a boy band on a mission from Jesus. The road production launching in Chicago loses next to nothing as it grows to fill a bigger house.

Off Broadway hit “Altar Boyz” may not exactly be the musical that road producers were praying for, but they may be thankful for the tour of this small-scale, high-spirited spoof about a boy band on a mission from Jesus. The road production launching in Chicago loses next to nothing as it grows to fill a bigger house, and director Stafford Arima has put together another amiable, vocally talented cast of fresh faces.

The show has been playing at a 300-seat theater in Gotham for about two years now, drawing an enthusiastic, relatively young fan base for its good-natured ribbing of the clash between holy thoughts and cookie-cutter boy bands.

Ostensibly taking place during the final concert of the title group’s national tour, “Altar Boyz” introduces us to its archetypal members. There’s heartthrob leader Matthew (Matthew Buckner); why-would-you-think-I’m-gay Mark (Ryan J Ratliff); buff, just-back-from-rehab Luke (Jesse JP Johnson); Mexican Juan (Jay Garcia); and Abraham (Nick Blaemire), able to milk the fact that he’s the Jewish guy for the entire 90-minute running time.

When the boys aren’t revealing book writer Kevin Del Aquila’s carefully spread-out personal histories, they’re singing Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker’s melodic pop and clever, double-entendre-laden lyrics and dancing Christopher Gattelli’s purposefully corny choreography — which never fails to find another way to dance a cross symbol.

Despite the modesty of its scope, “Altar Boyz” doesn’t necessarily thrive on intimacy. The characters are stylized enough that they can be camped up a notch higher without fear of going too far. And while the show does ultimately reach a slight emotional climax, the cast pulls it off in this big space — with a nicely delivered, heartfelt twist by Blaemire.

Yes, there are some small bits that suffer. Juan, for example, is constantly drawn to attractive ladies in the audience, but the raised proscenium stage and empty orchestra pit (the band sits onstage) puts him at too much of a distance for the joke to work effectively. And director Arima may want to adjust the size of some of the sight gags — the puppet lambs of Christ, for example, don’t make the same impression they did in New York. They’re still adorable and funny, but too small.

For the most part, though, what might have been lost in translation to a bigger theater is made up for with sheer precision. Ratliff in particular deserves credit for an exactness to detail that always hits its Mark — the way he smiles with a hint of self-consciousness, for example, or the way he’s drawn to Matthew while the latter sings a love song to a member of the audience. And although all of them deliver the songs more than capably, Ratliff sells his “Epiphany” with special aplomb.

It would also be darn hard to imagine a more ideal Matthew than Buckner. Buckner’s bio reveals both a reality-show pedigree (he was a finalist on “The Road to Stardom With Missy Elliott”) and a sincere appreciation of higher powers. No wonder he seems not to be forcing anything onstage and just being his good-looking self. He gets upstaged on occasion when the others demonstrate more forceful personalities, but nobody ever said being a bland band-leader was easy.

While it clearly faces a marketing challenge, “Altar Boyz” has ventured into the heartland before. In 2005, the show did six-week runs at mid-size theaters in Detroit and Des Moines; earlier this year, it even made a pilgrimage to South Korea. It now seeks the path that the similarly sized but more hyped “Avenue Q” might have paved had it headed for the road rather than Vegas.

Altar Boyz

LaSalle Bank Theater, Chicago; 1,900 seats; $55 top

Production

A Broadway in Chicago, Ken Davenport and Robyn Goodman presentation, in association with Joe McGinnis, Ruth Hendel, Sharon Karmazin, Matt Murphy and Mark Shacket, of a musical in one act conceived by Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport, with music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, book by Kevin Del Aquila. Directed by Stafford Arima. Musical direction, Michael Sobie. Choreography, Christopher Gattelli.

Creative

Set, Anna Louizos; costumes, Gail Brassard; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Simon Matthews; orchestrations, Doug Katsaros, Lynne Shankel; vocal arrangements, Gary Adler, Michael Patrick Walker; dance music and additional arrangements, Shankel; production stage manager, Jenifer A. Shenker. Opened, reviewed Oct. 11, 2006. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.

Cast

Matthew - Matthew Buckner Mark - Ryan J Ratliff Luke - Jesse JP Johnson Juan - Jay Garcia Abraham - Nick Blaemire
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