To close out its 2008-’09 season, Bristol Riverside Theater has chosen a long-running off-Broadway hit with a pair of local connections. The award-winning “Altar Boyz” was first presented at the New York Musical Theater Festival in the fall of 2004 and opened off Broadway the following spring. It is still running.
Bristol Riverside’s production brings to the theater as music director (and keyboard player) Gary Adler, who with Michael Patrick Walker wrote the music and lyrics for “Altar Boyz,” and as director and choreographer Christopher Gattelli, the choreographer from the original production. Both Adler and Gattelli have ties to the area: Adler began his professional career at Bristol Riverside, and Gattelli is a native of the town.
Described as a spoof of Christian boy-bands, “Altar Boyz” presents the tale of five young men from Ohio who are out to save the world and have come east to continue their mission. Will their style of saving the world that worked so well in the mid-Western environment of bingo halls and pancake breakfasts be as successful in the East?
That style consists of presenting shows in which the young men sing and dance and in so doing cleanse the souls of their audience. According to the program, the time for the Bristol Riverside production is the present and the place is the Bristol Riverside Theater. The show the young men put on contains lots of near misses and unexpected moments. The dancing includes some break dancing, the athletic sort that often has the audience holding its breath — is he really doing that? The young men are accompanied by Adler and Nicholas Cheng on keyboards, Jonathan Ball on drums, and Neil Nemetz on guitar. While they are singing and dancing, and hoping to convert their audience, a gadget at the back of their performance space, the Soul Sensor DX12, scans the souls of the members of their audience and displays how many of those souls are still unsaved. Part of the show’s humor comes from the young men’s efforts to bring that number down to zero.
The five young men spreading their pop-rock version of the gospel are named (no surprise here) Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Juan — and Abraham. Juan is Hispanic, and Abraham is Jewish (he sports a yarmulke), which opens opportunities for humor. It is to the credit of the writers that, unlike the case with many Jewish jokes, there is no underlying anti-Semitism apparent in the ones in “Altar Boyz.” Indeed, many aspects of this musical manage to take what are ordinarily considered very serious matters and with good humor make them a source of amusement that is not also a source of bad feelings. When, for example, the four Christian boys cross themselves, which they do frequently toward the end of the musical numbers, perhaps as a way of telling the audience the song is nearing its end, Abraham draws a star of David in the air.
Despite the fact that they look like teenagers, all five actors are members of Actors Equity. Juan is played by Xavier Cano, a 2006 graduate of the University of Miami; Cano played the same role in an Adirondack Theater Festival production. Matt De Angelis is Matthew. He has New York City credits on his resume, and he too performed in the Adirondack Theater Festival production. Abraham is played by Jonathan Fadoul, who took part in the national tours of “Seussical” and “Grease.” Travis Morin takes on Luke, a role he had already played in a Washington D.C. production. John Pinto, Jr., is playing his third Mark, having been in a Colorado and a Florida production.
All five do remarkably well. It is hard to make a musical parody work unless you can really sing, to say nothing of what is required to achieve the ensemble precision of their dancing. Adler and Gattelli certainly deserve praise for the music and stage direction and the choreography. The set design is by Nels Anderson, a veteran of more than 30 Bristol Riverside productions, most recently this spring’s “Defiance.” This is not an elaborate set, at least not in the details, but it is a striking one — the band is placed on steel scaffolding some 12 feet above the stage. The costumes were designed by Linda Bee Stockton, who was also the designer for “Defiance” and has been involved in many other Bristol Riverside productions. David Pedemonti, a resident of the borough of Bristol, designed the lighting, which helps achieve the desired effect.
What is truly remarkable about this play, and this production, is the way it seduces many who are not partial to musicals. Quite a few members of the opening-night audience were overheard remarking how surprised they were that they were having such a good time — they had never expected to enjoy such a musical so much.
"Altar Boyz," Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. Through Sunday, May 31. Musical featuring five guys in a pious pop act. Christopher Gattelli, the choreographer of the original Off-Broadway production, is director and choreographer; Gary Adler, the co-composer, is musical director. $34 to $42. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.