Altar Boyz, book by Kevin Del Aguila, music and lyrics by Gary Adler & Michael Patrick Walker. Directed by Bert Bernardi.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Eddie Maldonado, Tom Garruto, Steven Cardona, Trey Compton, Barry Shafrin; photo provided
"Raise the praise..."
When Matthew, Mark, Luke and Juan get together with Abraham, music is likely to happen so forming a group, a boy band for God(s), seems inevitable. These five guys, Christians all, even the Jewish one, sing to the Lord and praise to the skies their firm belief that man can be saved, and should be saved, by music. Even the sinners in the audience, and those upon the boards, can be factored in to their mission, especially with the help of the SSDX12, an electronic gadget that counts the number of sinners still to be found in the house (SS stands for Soul Searcher).
There, in twelve musical numbers and 87 minutes, is Altar Boyz. It’s a slight plot, played for the fun of it requiring a small band, some head-phone mikes, some eighties/nineties costumes and some vim and verve and vigor. Those three v’s are all in evidence on the stage of the Theater Barn in New Lebanon these warm August nights.
Staged and Directed by Bert Bernardi, with additional choreography by Steven Cardona, the boys perform almost non-stop, moving to the funky groove of the show’s ineffectual songs. Everything you see in those late night TV commercials for the collected "Best of..." albums is in evidence on the stage and, to be totally honest, is fun to watch. High stepping, quick turns, arm-thrusts with and without fists, karate kicks are all happening number to number. With a touch of sadness offered by Juan, the piece has its genuine emotional side as well, making this the complete experience from jazz variation to sweet confessional and slightly gay love surprise.
Matthew, the group’s lead singer, is played by Theater Barn regular Trey Compton whose singing is strong and direct and whose dancing has never been better here. Barry Shifrin is his best friend Mark. Shifrin adds an all-too obvious deviation from the norm to his performance which actually seemed to be a bit over the edge for this script. Nevertheless he is an effective performer who adds energy to the proceedings without half trying.
Tall, thin Tom Garruto plays Luke, almost an Italian-American stereotype, Travolta at the stretch. He plays the type for all he’s worth, while Eddie Maldonado brings a definite Latin flair and flavor to the table as Juan. Maldonado has a million dollar smile and hips that don’t seem to ever stop moving. And then there’s Abraham. Steven Cardona plays the out of his class renegade Jewish guy with a neat attitude and a fine style.
Independently each guy carries a tune, but sometimes when singing together there was lack of harmony, of symmetry. Their coordinated movements as a group was really fantastic, but their five part harmony just sounded like five guys singing different notes, maybe even different keys. So much of the show is sung, and sung as a group, that this weakness in delivery lessens the impact of the piece which is unfortunate, for each one has talent and ability. The singing did improve during the show, so perhaps one problem could be solved with a real vocal warm-up backstage before the show begins. Just a suggestion.
Victoria Casella’s combo, with Chris Theriault on guitar and Ian Tucksmith on percussion, adds a lot to the flavor of the offering. Tracey Richardson’s set, Michelle Bonn’s costumes and Allen E. Phelps’ lighting are first-rate here but Jason Tamborini and staff, handling the sound, missed cue after cue, leaving one voice after another struggling to be heard. John Earle has programmed the Sony SSDX12 to a fare-thee-well (it has been provided by Woodwind Productions, Inc.).
This show doesn’t have the cleverness of "Forever Plaid," nor is it as irreverential as "Nunsense" (it has been booted about that Altar Boyz is a clever hybrid of these two shows), but it does bring a peculiar quality of its own into play: it tackles the rock forces of God to the ground in a gentle tussle and adds a bit of today’s political conscience into the mixture. I enjoyed the show but wouldn’t rush to see it again any time soon; frankly I want to leave someone else the opportunity to find a good seat.
Altar Boyz plays through August 11 at the Theater Barn located at 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-794-8989.