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Altar Boyz

Bolstered by the original production team, including Stafford Arima's expert pacing and Natasha Katz's amusing concert mini-pyrotechnics, this lighthearted mix of evangelical messaging and pop seems to have become more sincere, and hence more entertaining, as it has toured to spread the Word (word). This "Altar Boyz" has mass appeal.

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

Bolstered by the original production team, including Stafford Arima’s expert pacing and Natasha Katz’s amusing concert mini-pyrotechnics, this lighthearted mix of evangelical messaging and pop seems to have become more sincere, and hence more entertaining, as it has toured to spread the Word (word). This “Altar Boyz” has mass appeal.

The expansive Wadsworth isn’t the ideal venue for this evangelical crusade (“Raise the Praise 2007”) in the form of a boy-band concert. Sitting up close makes it difficult to keep all five Boyz in view during their precision routines, while sitting farther back serves the concert experience but the jokes, trickier lyrics and subtle character byplay don’t always land.

But any disadvantages caused by a too-large auditorium are offset by the efforts of this charming, gifted ensemble of five, who on tour can’t ride on the enthusiasm of a cadre of hometown “Altarholics” singing along and automatically cheering every familiar move. Like garden-variety evangelicals, they have to work to win over each individual soul, and work they do, investing their admittedly thin roles with conviction and interior life.

Show never falls victim to the syndrome — to which many productions of “Godspell” are prey — in which there’s so much love shared among the cast there’s none left for the audience. Though these fellows do much hugging and high-fiving, the bulk of their energy is directed outward; they remain fully committed to the twin goals of bringing us all closer to Heaven and giving us a helluva performance.

The clever, hummable songs and interstitial chat invite us to chuckle at the guys’ lack of guile without mocking their genuine faith.

Most of the guys are transparent: Consider the insistence of stoner/homeboy Luke (Jesse JP Johnson) that his rehab stint was due to “exhaustion.” Aud is always several steps ahead of them, but is always drawn back by their essential likability and earnestness.

Willowy, gushing Paul Lynde-like group choreographer Mark (Ryan J Ratliff) shakes his hips a little too vigorously and moons after pretty-boy frontman Matthew (Matthew Buckner), even going so far as to stand in front of the aud volunteer to whom Matthew is singing an abstinence ballad (“Girl, you make me want to wait”). We get what’s going on and that’s funny, but Matthew and Mark don’t, and that’s even funnier. They maintain their sweetness, and so our laughter isn’t tinged with condescension or edge.

Jay Garcia brings real pathos to Juan, the Latino adoptee who learns the truth about his birth parents just before his big number, and Nick Blaemire has the least to do but is the best all-around performer as token Jew Abraham (his presence in the group remains one of the tuner’s secular mysteries).

On opening night, curtain was delayed due to lighting complications, sound system suffered some glitches and Buckner seemed hoarse as if battling a cold — all of it fixable, all in a day’s work for life on the road.

Altar Boyz

Wadsworth Theater; 1,356 seats; $58 top

Production: A Ken Davenport and Robyn Goodman presentation, in association with Joe McGinnis, Ruth Hendel, Sharon Karmazin, Matt Murphy, 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 Aguila. Directed by Stafford Arima. Choreography, Christopher Gattelli.

Crew: Sets, Anna Louizos; costumes, Gail Brassard; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Simon Matthews, music director, Andy Grobengieser; production stage manager, Jenifer A. Shenker. Opened, reviewed Feb. 13, 2007; runs through Feb. 25. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

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

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