The singers of 'Altar Boyz' send up Christian rock, boy bands and commercial religion
Though its plot is communion-wafer thin, "Altar Boyz," the Christian boy-band satire currently being performed by Palo Alto Players, still offers some praiseworthy parody and fun.
It's the final night of the Christian supergroup Altar Boyz' "Raise the Praise" tour, and the hunky gospel lovers are at the top of their game, having thrilled youth groups in bingo halls around the country with their synth-pop tunes, dance moves and religious message.
The biblically named members of the group each fulfill a boy-band stereotype. "The Leader" Mathew (David Saber) is the hunky front man/composer. Mark (Jordan Pajarillo), "The Sensitive One," is the choreographer with a secret crush on BFF Mathew. "Bad Boy" Luke (Brian Palac) is the break-dancing gangsta, recently out of rehab for "exhaustion." "Latin Lover" Juan (the silken-voiced Ashley Simms) is the smooth lothario searching for his birth parents. Adding a twist to the Catholic lineup, Abraham (Daniel Harper), "The Gefilte Fish out of Water," is the Jewish lyricist who finds himself in the group by divine command, despite his religious difference with his bandmates.
The newest addition to the act is a "Soul Sensor" device (courtesy of corporate sponsor Sony) that somehow calculates how many heavy souls remain in the audience in need of saving. It's the Boyz' goal to bring the number down to zero by the end of their show. The Boyz preach love and faith to their crowds but find themselves tested when the desire for fame and fortune (briefly) threatens to fracture their sacred bond.
The entire show (90 minutes, no intermission) takes place in real time within the Boyz' concert. The set is a simple illuminated cross. The band is on stage behind the performers, and anyone familiar with pop-group performances, be they Christian or secular, will recognize the onstage banter, headset mics and cheesy choreography as par for the course. A clever touch is the faux merch booth set up in the lobby of the Lucie Stern Theatre, with T-shirts and water bottles emblazoned with the Boyz' images.
The songs, by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, are an accurate send up of silly-yet-catchy sugary pop and cringe-worthy contemporary Christian rock, with lyrics including "Girl, you make me want to wait," "Jesus called me on my cell phone" and "God put the rhythm in me so I could bust a move!" Some of the songs seem like they could pass as genuine, while the exorcism-themed "Number 918" is more clearly ludicrous.
Though the backing band is made up of only two keyboards, a guitar and a drummer, the players do a very impressive job creating a full concert sound, and the Boyz achieve the smooth, harmonizing vocal blend that is the secret to boy-band success. Unfortunately, microphone and mix problems continually marred the show's flow at one show, rendering some of the lyrics and dialogue inaudible.
Performance-wise, Jordan Pajarillo is a standout as the closeted Mark, with great dancing skills and vocals, and tons of personality. On the downside, Abraham is an important character with several climactic numbers and poignant lines, but Daniel Harper showed limited singing ability at a recent performance.
Still, though the Boyz are often the butts of jokes, they deliver their message with enough sweetness and sincerity to win over nonbelievers. The tone of the show is mocking but good-natured. Catholicism, the bubblegum-music genre and the commercialization of religion are all subject to much ridicule, but it's never mean-spirited.
The sharp yet genial jokes may be best suited to those who grew up with Catholic school and forced youth-group participation during the heyday of the Backstreet Boys and their ilk (author included). And as befitting the Boyz' family values, the jokes include plenty of innuendo but never get too risque. I did wonder, though, if older folks or others who may not be as familiar with this type of contemporary pop might find it difficult to connect to the music or the humor.
Though "Altar Boyz" may not rise to the ranks of classic musical comedy (and liturgy protocol was much better rhymed by Tom Lehrer in "The Vatican Rag"), it's got plenty of redeeming charm and chuckles. It may not save your soul but it is likely to raise your spirits.
What: "Altar Boyz" by Kevin Del Aguila, Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, presented by Palo Alto Players
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through May 8, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are $32, with some discounts available for students, seniors and groups.
Info: Go to paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.