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The place is Celebration Theatre. The event: the final show of the Raise the Praise Tour for renowned fab five, the Altar Boyz. The Ohio-grown quintet has travelled the nation, spreading the word and giving praise through Christian pop music. Their mission: to sing and dance the word of God into your heart and unburdening the souls of their audience, concert by concert, show by show. Thanks to one of their many sponsors, the singing group can gauge their progress using the "Soul Sensor DX-12", an electronic device that can detect and count how many souls are saved during the course of the show. The goal: to sing and dance that number all the way down to zero.
At the helm of this religious musical endeavor is devout but modest frontman Matthew ( Jesse Bradley), who writes the music for the band. Effeminate falsetto Mark ( Clifford Bañagale) is the band’s choreographer. Latino Lover Juan ( Nico Ramirez [u/s]) is in charge of the costumes. And Bad Boy Luke ( Jake Wesley Stewart), well, he drives the van. Add a dash of Jew in songwriter Abraham ( Kelly Rice), and you have a boy band combo that is bound to please everyone – especially God.
The Altar Boyz do their damnedest – excuse me – darndest to teach and preach the word with electrifying numbers like “God Put the Rhythm in Me” and “The Miracle Song” rap. With the concert going smoothly and the number on the Soul Sensor going down, The Band looks like they are headed for a grand finish to their tour; that is, until Juan’s birthday surprise. The gift goes horribly amiss and marks the biggest in a series of misfires. Not only does the number on the Soul Sensor begin to rise, but each member slowly reveals that, audience souls aside, they have demons of their own to confront. They must regain the spirit of the word, lest Satan prevail over the evening.
At this point, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I was a huge Menudo fan. I saw them in concert and even still have all their CDs, well up until Ricky Martin left. I was also a fairly big Amy Grant fan back in the day. And I walked into this show having no clue what it was about.
There were so many great things about this show, where do I begin…? Let’s get the obvious out of the way. These boyz are hot! Any girl could use a boy serenading her on a sticky Sunday afternoon. And what could be hotter than cute boyz singing songs about God, being saved, Chastity…? Sigh.
The choreography in this production was simply off the hook. (There’s no other way to put it.) From the tango to the moonwalk, Ameenah Kaplan capitalizes on the broad array of musical textures within Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker’s score to infuse a cornucopia of dance styles into the Boyz repertoire, elevating each dance number to a sophistication well beyond the signature, synchronized hip-hop routines that boy bands are known for. Costume Designer Michael Mullen expertly outfits the ensemble with rhinestones, rosaries, designer T-Shirts and Cross-embossed club gear, the hippest West Coast-flavor "Bling for the King" that Melrose Avenue has to offer. Colorful, clever, in character, spot on.
The band rocked.
Christopher Bratten (keyboard),
Adam Halitzka (drums),
Nick Perez (guitar) &
Carson Schutze (keyboard) did a wicked job. I didn’t notice one missed cue, so I’m gonna say there weren’t any.
This incarnation of Altar Boyz is tremendous. All five cast members sing, dance and act quite well. Channeling a very young Matt Dillion, Jake Wesley Stewart is extremely likable as ruffian Luke; a kid that is all good intention when he’s talking, but only completely competent when he’s performing. Nico Ramirez did a spectacular job with character Juan’s “La Vida Eternal“ Meltdown. Ramirez’ performance is so wonderfully over the top, yet pitch perfect in the moment. Clifford Bañagale is awesome as resident diva Mark, the smallest guy in the lot with the biggest talent, and the biggest boycrush, though he hides it poorly. Loved how he worked the audience and the stage and the “Epiphany” number. Dance Captain Kelly Rice’s Abraham is beautifully understated as the member who is always catching up, but second only to Matthew in grounding the band and keeping the show from completely derailing. Rice grounds this ensemble of actors with his energy, presence and vocal versatility. His is the smiling face I remember on the lyric "We believe in showin' lots of love..." during the show's opening number. (sigh)
The kiss of death for a show like this is any moment at which the action feels rehearsed. That moment never happened for me in this production. The comic timing throughout was super. Every song and action and reaction felt spontaneous, especially in the moments when the show within the show goes haywire. I believed these kids didn’t know what was going to happen next; the illusion of ‘Christian pop band Altar Boyz fumbling through the last show of their tour’ was complete and intact for me. Creating and maintaining that kind of illusion is extremely difficult – it is what makes theater magical – and this cast nailed it. Bravo.
Director Patrick Pearson does a great job in orchestrating all elements of this production. First in the casting, then in his apparent decision to treat this production as a rock concert that goes awry, versus approaching it as a piece of musical theater. The show was filled with lovely nuances like the fog machine and dancing concert lighting to the musicians parked upstage also bowing their heads in prayer and Mark’s reaction to Matthew’s “sweaty towel gift”. Perhaps what I appreciate most in the direction is the attention to the drama; the beats of real emotion and real crisis in between the band’s rehearsed banter, cheesy songs and elaborate choreography. Pearson forsakes neither tone, nor the intimate human moments within the show for its overall satirical thrust. Thank you. Well Done.
This production of Altar Boyz is a perfect fit for the Celebration Theatre. The talent proximity to audience participation ratio was spot on for the space of the 64-seater. The air conditioning was touch and go on the day I went, but that was the only snag in a near perfect theatre experience. Prepare to arrive early for a good seat, but don’t expect to get tickets if you wait very long. ( I got mine!)
Altar Boyz has extended its run through August 30, 2009 with a special on-demand performance added Wednesday, August 26th. Go see this show!
7051-B Santa Monica Blvd.
Hollywood, CA 90038
Thursdays, Fridays, and
Saturdays at 8:00pm
Sundays at 3:00pm
Reservations: 323 957-1884
Photos: Michael Joseph