Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Altar Boyz: An Isotope of Kitsch

By Russ Bickerstaff
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This month, another touring off-Broadway hit rolls into the Marcus Center for a couple of weeks. Running at the Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall now through April 26th, there’s something distinctly unique about The Altar Boyz. A light comedy, The Altar Boyz plays the kitschy end of musical theatre so completely over-the-top that it gains an undeniable depth on further analysis.

Conceived by Mark Kessler and Ken Davenport, the show is set-up like a concert for a contemporary pop boy band. Not exactly being the target demographic for such music, it kind of surprised me how familiar I am with a style that’s been pumped through the speakers of passing radios and manifested in print and television . . . from New Kids on the Block to the Backstreet Boys to *NSYNC to uhh . . . (what’s the new one?) . . . the Jonas Brothers. The infectiously glossy, monumentally superficial music that’s been so heavily marketed to pre-teen girls over the course of the past thirty years or so has been such a parody of itself that it seems kind of redundant to consciously stage a parody of it. What makes Altar Boyz so good at what it does is that there’s a genuine respect for what they’re parodying here . . . taken completely out of context, the music is every bit as polished as anything that Disney or any major recording operation would be trying to shovel into the ears and eyes of its target demographic . . . on the surface, given the right marketing, The Altar Boyz could BE *NSYNC or the Jonas Brothers. The music presented is kitschy, but it’s also catchy . . . composers Gary Adler and Michael Patrick have done a brilliant job of re-creating the style. Admittedly, it’s probably not that difficult to write glossy pop songs for a boy band. They all have the same basic sound, but to arrange a group of them together that’s making fun of the genre while respecting those things that make it appealing . . . that’s competent work. There’s no avarice towards the people on wither side of the stage of boy band music . . .

On a whole different level, the Altar Boyz is doing the same thing with religion that it’s doing with the music genre. As the name implies, The Altar Boyz is a Christian rock group featuring teen heartthrobs Matthew, Mark, Luke and . . .  Juan. And, of course a Jewish kid named Abraham. All the characters seem kind of clueless for different reasons . . . which is kind of making a statement about religion itself. Cheesy, charismatic group leader Matthew (a cleverly narcissistic Philip Drennen) seems terminally naïve. Pretty- effeminate Mark (sweet, pretty boy Dan Scott) has come out of the closet, admitting to the world that . . . he’s a Catholic. Jock-boy hip-hop wannabe Luke (a sympathetically thick Anton Fero) has been treated for the kind of “exhaustion” that comes in a bottle. Orphaned Latin heartthrob Juan (Adam Cassel) holds on to the unlikely hope of finding his real parents. And Jewish guy Abe (an affable Tim Dolan) just wants to be part of an in-group. The comedy here is making fun of the naïve aspects of organized religion while simultaneously celebrating the acceptance and perseverance that mark some of its loftier virtues. Altar Boyz somewhat subversively speaks to the religious and non-religious alike—making fun of the Judeo-Christian culture. Those of us on the outside find so bizarre while simultaneously celebrating the things that make it so appealing to begin with. The campiness of the show shines a light on the artifice of organized religion to show a deeper emotional truth without breaking stride as a lightly comic boy band parody with a catchy beat. Not exactly a towering achievement, but interesting . . . and a (presumably) pre-recorded Shadoe Stevens plays the announcer/voice of god, which is a nice touch . . . 

The Altar Boyz
runs through April 26th at the Marcus Center

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