By Barry Reszel
Altar Boyz is no Book of Mormon. And that is a huge compliment.
Sure, its creators (Idea: Mark J. Kessler and Ken Davenport; Book: Kevin Del Aguila; Music and Lyrics: Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker) wouldn’t mind the nine Tony’s (out of 14 nominations); four international casts continually running, nearly seven years after its opening on the Great White Way (including the original Broadway production); or a permanent place in the American musical theatre canon.
Instead, Kessler, Davenport, et al. traded all that for a little class.
It’s hard not to draw parallels between the blatantly, purposefully offensive, over-the-top (albeit clever and hysterical) mega-hit that is Mormon and the 2005-10 successful off-Broadway Altar Boyz currently being staged by Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at Rogers Park’s No Exit Café. That’s because neither of these shows are mere send-ups to religion in general or religious practice overall. Instead, each is a parody that tweaks a particular faith and its beliefs.
Book of Mormon skewers the nearly 16 million members of the fourth largest Christian denomination in the United States, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It’s a mocking, foul-language filled, sexually explicit middle finger to everything Mormons hold hallowed. And if the gazillion folks who have filed into theatres around the world to see this debauchery weren’t leaving doubled over with laughter pangs, they would be ashamed of themselves
Altar Boyz is a conversely genteel parody of the world’s largest Christian religion, Roman Catholicism, that sports more than 1.2 billion members worldwide and and more than 50 million members in the United States. Focused on the five-member boy band from Ohio who came together (albeit by conflicting, though complementary, accounts), Altar Boyz is presented as the final concert of their national “Raise the Praise” tour.
The group is made up of former Catholic altar servers Matthew (Max DeTogne), Mark (Frankie Leo Bennett), Luke (Colin Schrier) and Juan (Marco Tzunux). Member five is their Jewish friend Abraham (Steven Romero Schaeffer), who is begrudgingly allowed among the Catholics for his ability to write lyrics. Though in one hilarious scene, when Abraham is told Jews aren’t allowed in the church, he responds, “I think I saw one hanging on that cross.”
Employing the tightly choreographed boy band stylings of groups like “NSYNC,” “Backstreet Boys,” “New Kids on the Block” and “Boyz II Men,” among others, “The Altar Boyz” perform their decidedly Christian Rock parody song list, along with scenes describing the group’s beginnings and each member’s personality. Personal vocal highlights include the ballad “Something About You” by DeTogne; the hilarious “Epiphany” by Bennett; and the group’s tender “I Believe” finale, an ode to friendship and, by extension, faith. Make no mistake, this is an ensemble show; highlights are personal and all five performers can sing and dance up a storm.
That is no small part due to the work put in by the Boyz to terrifically execute Choreographer Sawyer Smith‘s exciting, intricate, exhausting dance moves and harmonize consistently with Jeremy Ramey‘s always-excellent music direction.
Add to that James Kolditz’s concert lighting combined with Abigail Reed‘s rock stage setting and Costume Designer Kate Setzer Kamphausen dazzling show choir garb to construct the perfect setting for this farewell concert.
The schtick piece of the performance comes with the group’s use of the Sony Soul Sensor DX-12, which allows them to track the number of burdened souls in the theatre. The endearing surprise plot twist comes with reducing the number on the machine to zero by the end of the concert.
Thanks to superb direction by Courtney Crouse, Theo’s production expertly walks the line allowing achievement of all the piece’s comic elements while preserving a certain dignity and respect for people of faith. The deserved jabs at religious extremism, old-fashioned Catholic thinking and scandal (Father’s “surprise retirement party”) are, thankfully, not overplayed. The audience is so much better for it. And the songbook is clever, witty and sometimes surprising but never outwardly mocking.
That’s why thinking people will appreciate Altar Boyz subtlety over Mormon‘s hyperbole. They’ll certainly laugh just the same. But they’ll also be able to walk out of the the theatre with self-respect fully in tow.
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents “Altar Boyz” through January 14 at The No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Cody Jolly.