‘Altar Boyz’

From left, Evan Waggoner, Antonio Brown, Elijah King, Brandon Schumacker, and Devin Pfeiffer

In the 1990s, there were two blips on the nation’s pop culture radar that some of us are still recovering from: Boy bands and contemporary Christian music.

Boy bands consisted of prepackaged, highly commercialized all-white singers/dancers who called themselves New Kids on the Block, Back Street Boys, N’ Sync, and 98º. Their producers pilfered the R&B and gospel sound, cappella harmonies, and highly-stylized choreography of Black artists from the 1950s, resulting in heartfelt, but often soulless ballads and anthems aimed largely at teenagers.

According to Amy Grant, the queen of Christian pop, contemporary Christian music was born upon the realization that “the devil shouldn’t have all the good music.” It consisted largely of inspirational songs grounded in Southern gospel, but quickly embraced pop and rock.

Merging these two movements is “Altar Boyz,” a sweetly satirical musical theater sendoff that is on stage at Porthouse Theatre in Cuyahoga Falls.

With music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, and story by Kevin Del Aguila, “Altar Boyz” features five born-again and broadly drawn songsters – charismatic choirboy Matthew (Elijah King), sensitive Mark (Brandon Schumacker), bad boy Luke (Evan Waggoner), Latin lover Juan (Antonio Brown) and Jew-for-Jesus Abraham (Devin Pfeiffer) – touring the nation to promote their corporate sponsors and their Lord and savior.

The show is staged as a live concert, with a thin storyline worked into song introductions and the light, direct address banter between musical numbers.

As do many plays built on parody, this 90-minute show could easily lapse into a one-trick gimmick that feels 80 minutes too long. Its saving grace as a musical is a genuinely clever script and some terrific songs, which render the playful proselytizing harmless to those of us who do not imbibe. It adds humor and poignancy in all the right places and when needed most.

As such, the show ran for an impressive 2,032 performances after opening in New York City in March 2005, making it the ninth-longest-running Off-Broadway musical at the time.

Its saving grace as a local production is the team of Terri Kent as director and Martín Céspedes as choreographer, who worked together in COVID-19 pre-pandemic, critically acclaimed productions of “Hair” at Kent State University and “Man of La Mancha” at Porthouse.

“We both realize that this show can’t be played for camp or just as a fun piece with a lot of songs if it’s going to work,” said Kent, regarding the need to be earnest in the portrayal of parody. “And these five guys we have are fantastic. They get what we’re after and there’s great chemistry and connection between them.”

There’s also a history as two are graduates of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music who performed in KSU’s “Man of La Mancha” and the others are KSU musical theater majors or graduates. They showed up at rehearsals with shared expectations, a like-minded work ethic and a common shorthand.

It’s a good thing, for Céspedes – known for his intensity and cardiovascular conditioning – came out of quarantine on a mission. Knowing how much of this show’s storytelling and momentum is found in its dance, he admits that he “threw topspin at these guys – so many steps and so many styles and all at top speed and in a short amount of time – and they hit it back. They were all up for and met the challenge.

“This is a show worth coming out for and people will be talking about this production and these five performers for a long time.”

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. He was named best in Ohio for reviews/criticism in the Press Club of Cleveland’s 2021 All Ohio Excellence in Journalism Awards.

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