|Cast of "Altar Boyz" Javier Manente as Juan, Mason Alexander Park as Mark, Michael James as Matthew, Carter Ellis as Abraham and Michael Greer as Luke|
After learning that a popular off-Broadway musical titled "Altar Boyz" made its way to Pittsburgh, earned an extended run at the CLO Cabaret Downtown and came with the record of being the 9th longest running show in off-Broadway history, I just had to see what the fuss was all about.
Nearly sold out the evening of my visit, "Boyz" gently pokes fun at organized religion but in a way that makes it acceptable to even the most die-hard, born-again audience, which, from what I’ve read, seems to be part of its cadre of loyal supporters.
The Cabaret’s somewhat abbreviated stage is nicely raised for easy visibility from most parts of the theater and is flanked by an electronic gizmo called the Soul Sensor. It’s a device that measures how many in the audience are in need of saving or uplifting, a sum that continually decreases as the fictitious Christian Boy band from Ohio perform throughout a 90-minute, non-stop onslaught of rock, ballads and hip-hop mixed with wry raillery, satirical jokes and an overkill of schmaltzy humor.
The quintet on their "Raise the Praise" tour of the nation is made up of - what else? - guys named Matthew, Mark, Luke and Juan, plus a Jewish boy named Abraham. Go figure! This unexpectedly diverse cast of characters created by book writer Kevin Del Aguila is remarkably talented as actors, singers and dancers.
You have to be young to have the stamina needed to pull off the kinetic requirements of the show which include some challenging original off-Broadway choreography recreated by director Carlos Encinias. Looking as though they are in the early or mid-20s, these Altar Boyz are in the prime of life and seem to be enjoying every minute of it.
As Matthew, Michael James leads the group with an amiable, relaxed self-confidence. Mason Alexander Park is the youngish Mark, a coy boy with seasoned comic flourishes that hint that he’s been around the block a few times more than he appears.
Michael Greer as Luke exudes the most physicality of the group and is, perhaps, the best dancer, but he also nicely fine tunes his role as the dimmest mind in the bunch. As Juan, Javier Manente is drenched in both charisma and charm and seems to restrain his latent talent in order to level the playing field in supporting his fellow actors in this essentially ensemble piece.
Carter Ellis is right on as the seeming Jewish Christian boy band misfit, capping off his role with an exceptional rendition of "Everybody Fits," a fine ear for comic timing and an indefatigable energy level.
Providing the musical accompaniment to their choreographic feats and vocal harmonizing is a trio of musicians made up of two keyboards (Robert Neumeyer and Catie Brown) and drums (RJ Heid), which, despite its small size packs a full, well-rounded sound.
The musicians are conveniently placed at the rear of the stage, in full view of the audience, yet remain visually unobtrusive. A ramp behind them serves as another platform around which the boys caper and dance, the front of the stage seemingly not large enough to hold their unbridled energy and enthusiasm.
Admittedly, alas, 15 minutes into the show I was unabashedly unimpressed almost to the point where I wondered if I’d be able to sit through the remaining 75 minutes. But slowly, almost miraculously, I was converted and started to swim along with the crowd who, judging by their laughter and applause, seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely.
Unfortunately none of the nine songs sung in the show are memorable enough to become pop hits or even an entry in my iTunes audio library. The electric energy of the cast and crew were only thing that left me humming as I left the theater and went about searching for a quick dram or two of wine - altar or otherwis e- to cap off an entertaining evening.
"Altar Boyz" is at the CLO Cabaret at Theater Square in Downtown Pittsburgh through January 10, 2016. Phone 412-456-666 or www.trustarts.org