Encore Michigan

‘Altar Boyz’ makes serving mass fun at Meadow Brook

Review February 13, 2017 Patrice Nolan

ROCHESTER, Mich. – Matthew, Mark, Luke and Juan are four nice Ohio altar boys who, in the company of their long-suffering friend Abraham, receive a call direct from the Lord to save the souls of sinners by forming a Christian boy band – “The Altar Boyz.” This tongue-in-cheek pop-rock concert puts the Meadow Brook Theatre audience in the role of the adoring stadium fans who are attending the final performance of the Altar Boyz’ “Raise the Praise” national tour.

That’s the premise of this high-energy, tune-filled musical comedy that ran for five years and 2000-plus performances Off-Broadway before making its way to Meadow Brook Theatre. The book is by Kevin Del Aguila, with music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, based on a concept by Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport.

It’s worth noting that this play gently teases the young men’s idealism but not their actual faith. It does not offend, but may inspire elbow nudges between audience members who recognize a few inside jokes. Six years before The Book of Mormon, Altar Boyz hit on a fun formula for spoofing youthful fervor, with lyrics that proclaim “Jesus called me on my cell phone;” it even celebrates the joys of abstinence with the love song, “Girl, You Make Me Wanna Wait.” Sung to a woman pulled on stage from the audience, it’s a lovely song, sung with perfect sincerity – and certain to provoke belly laughs.

The show is directed with a generous sense of humor by MBT artistic director Travis W. Walter. Everything about Altar Boyz is light-hearted – it never takes itself seriously. The music, which includes a live, on-stage band directed by Matthew Croft, is wonderful, taking full advantage of the harmonies possible when five gifted men share the stage. Beyond that, the choreography by Tyrick Wiltez Jones is brilliant and non-stop. The play runs straight through for 90 minutes, without intermission, and we wonder how the actors/dancers/singers keep it up. They do… and they do it well.

The cast is talented and totally swoon-worthy, as boy-bands go. Lucas Wells, a Meadow Brook favorite, is Matthew, the spunky band leader and heart-throb front man. Ben Garrett plays Mark, a sweet boy who choreographs all the band’s numbers. He clearly has a crush on Matthew, but there is no mention of his sexual orientation; after all, this is a pretty chaste group. During a special number, he explains that as a boy he was hassled and beat up for how he walked and talked and was made to feel different by “Episcopalian thugs.” Matthew came to his rescue, and despite disapproval by Mark’s parents and rejection by friends, Mark has owned up to what he truly is – and come out – as Catholic.

Ricky Gee is Luke, a tough street kid who was in treatment for what is euphemistically referred to as “exhaustion” – a problem that we’re pretty sure is linked to a taste for the sacramental wine kept in the sacristy. Danny Bevins is Juan, another tough kid, who has been searching America for the parents who left him on the steps of a church in his native Tijuana. (Mr. Bevins is also the actual Dance Captain for the show.) Maclain Dassatti is Abraham, a practicing Jew who, as one of God’s Chosen People, he has inexplicably been chosen by the Lord to perform as a member of the Altar Boyz, which he explains in his song, “Everybody Fits.”

The set design by Brian Kessler reflects a perfect, multi-tiered rock-show stage embellished by stained-glass panels that suggest the band’s Roman Catholic origins. Given the play’s rock-show premise, the lighting design by Reid G. Johnson is part of the story – with the rigging clearly visible above the band and the dramatic down-spots all de rigueur for a stadium tour. Sound designer Mike Duncan kept the music front and center and managed to hint at an arena-like audio balance when needed. Kudos to whoever had the great idea of getting Mort Crim to record the Voice of God announcements used before, during and after the show. Costume designer Corey Collins also furthers the story by putting each actor in a wardrobe that tells us something about their character and helps us keep “who’s who” straight.

This is a family-friendly show – perfect for a Valentine’s date – that is easy to enjoy. But be warned – the Altar Boyz have a “miracle of modern science” machine that instantly calculates the number of non-believers in the auditorium (yeah, it’s all “sciencey”) and they have a plan to take that number to zero. Skeptics will find that the “Soul Searcher DX-1200” has your number – and the Altar Boyz have a few numbers of their own to save souls through the power of popular music.

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Week of 11/18/2019

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