Just before the beginning of Altar Boyz, the stage is bare except for a brightly lit sign featuring the play's title in capital letters. Smoke billows out from the left, and the musicians have gathered on stage and are tuning up. All of a sudden, an announcement says, "Ladies and gentlemen.
the Altar Boyz will be droppin' the funk in 12 minutes."
It is already evident that this group will not be performing a typical Sunday Mass.
The premise of Altar Boyz, the award-winning off-Broadway musical that opened in Boston Oct. 31, is that of a Catholic boy band, a mash-up of Backstreet Boys style and Christian rock-band lyrics. The group addresses the audience directly, and claims in their first song that they intend to "alter your mind."
Altar Boyz welcomes the audience into the world of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and Abraham, five boys who are drawn together by a message from God telling them that their destiny is to create a boy band that will "praise the Lord with funk and rhyme."
The five members of the band span the archetypes of pop music, from Enrique Iglesias to Clay Aiken. The show itself is cleverly written and the songs genuinely convey a message without failing to induce laughter.
The concept may sound like it's missing a plot; with a concert setting, how can the audience actually get to know the characters?
However, Kevin Del Aguila, who wrote the book for the musical, does an excellent job of weaving a coherent plot into the songs. The band introduces each song and often cites personal connections to the music.
It is a slow process, but by the end, the audience will leave feeling like they have gotten to know all five Altar Boyz.
In fact, in one scene, the Boyz go into detail about the formation of the band. It all begins over a piece of music that Matthew is attempting to write but can't find the words for. One by one, each Altar Boy appears, singing about how he thinks the group initially got together.
By the end of the scene, the only Jewish Altar Boy, Abraham, is the one who is able to write the words to the song. In a unique and funny way, they provide the audience with enough backstory to understand who they are and how their relationships with each other work.
In an interview with The Beacon, the actors said that the group dynamic was the most important part of the show.
"I think my main connection to the show is the friendship onstage," said Jesse "JP" Johnson, who plays Luke.
Nick Blaemire, who portrays Abraham, agreed, saying, "More than religion, it is about friendship."
The religious aspect of the show is obviously important-Altar Boyz is centered around a Christian pop group which actually measures the amount of sin in the audience with its "Soul Sensor DX-12." But religion does not overpower the show and leaves room for non-Christians to enjoy it too.
It does speak to a target audience, one that is undeniably Catholic, especially with songs like "Epiphany," in which Mark celebrates his Catholicism. The song includes the need "to confess your sins, and like the Pope, but this is who you are, it's not a choice."
If Altar Boyz can't manage to convert the entire audience, it will at least provide amusement for 90 minutes. The crowd will leave feeling uplifted by the music.
While it is unlikely that the show will provide any sort of higher meaning, it is endearingly heartwarming, especially to those who lived through the era of *NSYNC and can relive those days without cringing.
The music is truly decent and performed well by a delightful cast of five relatively unknown actors.
Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, who collaborated on the music and lyrics, have crafted a light romp through Catholicism, with catchy tunes and often-comical lyrics. Director Stafford Arima and choreographer Christopher Gattelli turn Altar Boyz into a seamless and lively show, creating dance moves ranging from the sign of the cross to sexualized hip thrusts.
The actors themselves are well-directed and are all able to distinguish their individual characters and keep them intact even during complicated dance numbers.
Where Altar Boyz falters is in its inability to dig very deep. The musical doesn't parody the Catholic Church in a particularly harsh manner, but then, that might be exactly the niche that Altar Boyz is meant to fit into.
Like Avenue Q in its satirical premise, but hardly as controversial, Altar Boyz is exactly what actor Matthew Buckner said it is: "not horribly offensive."
Altar Boyz is a smorgasbord of musical theatre, complete with everything from audience participation to puppets. If the standing ovation at the end was any indication of its popularity, then Altar Boyz might just be able to drop the funk here in Boston.