With the premiere of Altar Boyz at the Auburn Public Theater, 8 Exchange St., we now see how Ed Sayles’ much-heralded Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival is going to draw new audiences. Eventually, if he can indeed turn Auburn into the Stratford, Ontario, of Central New York, he’s going to attract culture pilgrims from everywhere. But in the short run he has to pull in new folks from around here without diminishing the packed houses of his boffo operation at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse on Owasco Lake, currently running the golden oldie Kiss Me, Kate.
To signal where he’s going he’s rewritten his old public relations slogan, “Broadway in the Finger Lakes,” to include “ . . . on, off and beyond Broadway.” Sayles is packing the house again, at the venue of the smaller Auburn Public Theater in town. Some of the same people show up, but on average the audience for Altar Boyz is about 30 years younger than at the lake.
The boy band/Christian rock spoof Altar Boyz opened at the Fringe Festival in 2004, moved to off-Broadway the next year and won scads of awards. It’s No. 9 on the list of the greatest hits in the history of off-Broadway. Make that a loving spoof with the sweetest of satires. The show really has it both ways. Fans of now faded groups like ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys and their Bible-thumping imitators rejoice that music much like theirs appears to be alive and jumping. And for people who were happy to see those groups recede, there are many invitations for sly sniggering.
As it is put together, Altar Boyz bears a structural parallel with Forever Plaid, 50 years later, but with rock music. The many creators of the show would probably loathe the comparison, however; most of them are under 40. The concept for the show came from Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport, who wrote My First Time, seen in an April production from Rarely Done. Music and lyrics come from Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, following a rather thin book by Kevin Del Aguila. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of any of them because that’s the point: Altar Boyz goes in new directions.
As with Forever Plaid you see a bunch of singing guys on stage, each identified as a type. Here the names have biblical resonance: Matthew, Mark and Luke, for starters, joined by Juan, a Hispanic, and Abraham, the one Jewish guy with a pinned-on yarmulke. They banter with one another in campy groaners and barely acknowledged tensions and attractions that do not lead to any resolution. Each one will have one big solo, rooted in sketchy characterization, but most of the show is still made up of music. And it’s all original, spoofing boy bands and Christian rockers generically rather than specifically.
Scenic designer Czerton Lim has filled the narrow stage at Auburn Public with light, featuring the show’s title in the marquee, and director Douglas S. Hall allots more space to the always-pumping musicians in the orchestra, led by Jeff Theis. Altar Boyz is as much concert as satire and comedy. Theis and company deliver a visceral beat, not the kind of thing you get from a Cole Porter score.
Some audience members arrived knowing the show’s songs from recordings, meaning that, spoof or not, they connect. Consider the silky ballad, “The Calling,” as all five join in: “Jesus called me on my cellphone/ No roaming charges were incurred/ He told me that I should go out in the world/ And spread his glorious word.” The item right after that, “The Miracle Song,” in rap rhythms, can also stand by itself.
Keeping with the idea that Altar Boyz is about a Christian boy band, the show takes on some of the premise of being a kind of a hip revival meeting. The Boyz are on the “Raise the Praise” tour and they’re hoping to rejuvenate every soul in the audience. They keep score on a Sony Soul Sensor DX-12, suspended from the ceiling. It begins with the total number of the audience, and the count keeps coming down for the souls redeemed with every musical number. The goal for the Boyz, obsessive at times, is to get it down to zero, that everyone present is “saved.”
Devout Christians need not worry. There’s nothing blasphemous or really irreligious, a kind of humor that makes audiences in the hinterlands uneasy. Instead, along with skewering a fading style, the show seems pointed at the questionable notion that a rock concert could be used for proselytizing, that pulsing entertainment should somehow merge with a piety infomercial. Consider the love ballad “Something About You” and its lyric, “Girl, you make me want to wait.” Additionally, the four Christian boys are Roman Catholics from Ohio, easily prone to making the sign of the cross, not evangelicals from a red state.
All five characters speak directly to the audience through the fourth wall, often given over to vaudeville-like gags. Jibes at being in Auburn, which appear to be written into the script, are delivered in falling cadences. This chitchat along with Lucy Brown’s costumes assure that we always know who’s who.
Husky, clean-cut Matthew (Todd Adamson) is the spokesman and resident scold, who makes sure the rest of the Boyz don’t misbehave. He quietly keeps another from using the word “evolve” as a metaphor. Standing next to him is the fey, sensitive mincing Mark (Patrick Elliott), who we recognize through a series of nudge-nudges is sweet on Matthew, who never acknowledges it. Perhaps because of Elliott’s performance, Mark always looks distinctive in the production dance numbers, choreographed by Lynne Shankel, and seems the most fully realized of the quintet. His solo “Epiphany” puts coming out in religious expression.
With his baseball cap modishly askew, Luke (Justin Packard) is the tough guy who appears to be recovering from substance abuse. He refers tellingly to periods of retreat and “exhaustion” (hint-hint). Perhaps because Parker is also the show’s dance captain, he pushes Luke in directions not in the script, including a highly athletic dance display with “Body, Mind and Soul!” a little after the midpoint of the 90-minute run.
Juan (Danny George) and Abraham (Brian Golub) invite occasions of self-mocking ethnic humor as well as songs with zesty flavor. Juan’s “Le Vita Eternal” rewrites the message to south of the border, while Abe’s klezmer-tinged “Everybody Fits” stops the show and also introduces a visual gag. With hand puppets, probably modeled on Shari Lewis, Abraham’s comes with side locks.
In an underplayed inside joke, the booming offstage voice of G.O.D. is none other than Syracuse baritone Bob Brown. Jesus Christ Superstar has been promoted.
This production runs through June 30. See Times Table for information.