New York City Theater
New World Stages, Manhattan
It certainly is an ecumenical experience, to see “Altar Boyz,” a mini-musical now playing off-Broadway in open run. The yarmulke and Jewish star are much in evidence, but so are crosses worn on chains and altar boys in smocks.
What is “Altar Boyz” all about, and why has it become such a long-running, award-winning show?
To seek these answers, we recently attended a performance at New World Stages’ multi-complex theater. Initially, we felt we had wandered into the wrong show, wrong for us. The highly-amplified rock-and-roll sound, with young bodies gyrating on stage, reached the mostly-young audience, but it was an alien sound and scene for this ancient reviewer.
But gradually we responded, finding here was a message with universal implications—namely, that Jews and Christians can join voices, reaching out to each other. Within all the joking and jousting is the theme of brotherhood and love of God (however one defines God). As for religions, any religion, or no specific religion, will do.
At the same time, “Altar Boyz” is a SPOOF of today’s singing groups—as well as a spoof of religious piety and modern mores—filled with clever lyrics, sly humor, strong characterizations, and unexpected twists.
“Altar Boyz” was conceived by Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport, with lyrics and music by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker. The book is written by Kevin Del Aguila. (This list of collaborators, given the names, sounds as ecumenical as the show itself.)
The five singers, as portrayed by Jason Celaya (Matthew), Zach Hanna (Mark), Andrew C. Call (Luke), Shaun Taylor-Corbett (Juan), and Dennis Moench (Abraham), are unlikely-looking candidates for rock stardom. Moench, for example, is an ungainly, skinny nebbish—and plays the stereotypical Jew. Call is Luke, the oafish boy from the ‘hood, Hanna is a gay boy played with swish, and Taylor-Corbett is a little, wiry Latino with a heavy Spanish accent (all three, in fact, are stereotypes). Only Celaya as Matthew, the group’s leader, has the charismatic looks one expects of a rock star. (Incidentally, on the day we attended, Matthew was played by his understudy, Jim Daly, who was also adorable.)
In point of fact, the five performers (under Stafford Arima’s astute direction) never miss a beat nor a fluff a move. Carefully choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, it’s a slick, precise ensemble performance—and, all told, a lovable, endearing, and flawlessly-executed piece.
-- Irene Backalenick
July 17, 2006