ST.GEORGE — Not many theater performances promise to be soul saving as well as entertaining, but Altar Boyz at The Stage Door in St. George, is determined to do it all. With the help of all things Jesus and a hearty dose of Christian boy band parody, there is plenty to enjoy about this 90-minute satirical spectacle.
Written by Kevin Del Aguila with music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, Altar Boyz is among the top 10 longest running Off Broadway productions of all time. During its nearly five year run, the show received critical acclaim. Now Utah audiences can enjoy a heavenly slice of this nostalgic nod to the popular 1990s boy band era. Altar Boyz is a musical layered with messages that are applicable regardless of whether you prefer Backstreet Boys, NSYNC or 98 Degrees.
Presented inside the historic Electric Theater in downtown St. George and directed by James Royce Edwards, the fun begins in the foyer, as audience members are encouraged to take part in a pre-show “confessional.” Tongue-in-cheek and outright falsified responses are encouraged — the funnier the better — written on slips of paper and dropped into a basket for a chance to be drawn out and read during the show. For convenience sake, the confessional area is located right next to the merch table, because while you’re confessing your sins, you probably want to grab an Altar Boyz T-shirt as well.
Once inside the theater the stage setup feels remarkably familiar to anyone who has ever darkened the door of a contemporary Christian church. Large projector screens, an oversized cross and live band all serve as the backdrop for the five men “called by God” to enlighten and entertain. Matthew, Mark, Luke and Juan, along with Abraham (who, the audience is told during the opening song, is Jewish) are in their final show of the Raise the Praise tour. Their goal is to quantify the number of souls in need of saving in the room, using the highly scientific “soul sensor,” and then get that number down to zero.
As one would expect from a boy band, this is clearly an ensemble cast with each of the five performers taking turns as lead vocals and their own solos. Still, Matthew is clearly the front man of the group and actor Chris Oram epitomizes the role. From the tight fitting jeans and sleeveless shirt to the thick, wavy hair that must regularly, and dramatically, be brushed out of his eyes, Chris Oram hits the right balance between confidence and Christian humility.
The other four members of the band each play a key role — not only in hitting the right harmonies, but also with their specific storylines. Mark (played by Matthew Christian) has a secret he’s not sure he’s willing to tell. Luke (played by Coby Oram) has a checkered past including taking some time to rehabilitate from his addiction… er… exhaustion. Juan (played by Ivan Odom) was left on the steps of church and is looking for his birth parents. And Abraham (played by Andrew Swan) faces the challenge of being Jewish in a very Christian environment. Their energetic dance moves and tight harmonies showcase the cast’s ability to work well together, though the spoken lines could benefit from a more fluid conversational style.
Behind the Altar Boyz, the band deserves a little spotlight of its own. Matt Szymanski, Matt LeFevre, Chad Roundy, and Thomas Anderson brought the show to life with some very real God-given talent. LeFevre’s skills on the electric drum machine proved especially important, particularly for true music aficionados who typically bristle at the decision to use the synthetic sound over a standard drum set. Musically they provide very different tones and the sticks in the hands of a less astute drummer might not have worked.
Despite the aforementioned praise, the vocals were at times a little raw — due in large part to several cast members’ illnesses. However the biggest issue was the balance between the vocals and the music. The vocals needed to be a little louder in order to catch all the humor in the lyrics. The opening song is a prime example:
We think that church is super fine
We love the wafers and the wine
And I think you’ll find…
We’re gonna altar your mind
The humor in this show is a combination of the sincerity with which the actors portray their characters, and the over-the-top language of the songs. Enunciation on the part of the vocalists is key and, at times, that came up a little short. As is the case with many musicals, audiences are likely to get even more out of the experience if they familiarize themselves with the lyrics and the music before the show.
A good portion of the humor in Altar Boyz is subtle, such as the pictures projected on the screens and the costumes and props. Abraham’s shirt, which reads, “This is how we Jew it,” with a large menorah beneath the Hebrew script text, is one example. His use of a Star of David bling on a gold chain — where his counterparts are all sporting glittering crosses — is another. It would be well worth a second viewing to catch all of these hidden gems.
In all theater experiences it is incumbent upon the audience to be part of the performance in the sense that the energy the audience gives allows the performers to give back to them. In this case particularly, because it is a pseudo-concert, audience members have to allow themselves to be swept up in the excitement of it and give something in order for the performers to return the energy. To put it in Christian terms, don’t be afraid to let go and let God handle the rest.
On the surface, the target audience for Altar Boyz may seem narrow, speaking specifically to lovers of Christian rock and boy bands in general. However, beneath the surface, the appeal is actually much broadet, with layers of inspiration and meaning to appeal to audiences of all ages. So go ahead. Give Altar Boyz a try. And who knows — they just might save your soul.