It can be hard to find a place where pop and piety intersect; even harder, perhaps, is finding a place where pop and religion can intersect, with a healthy dose of humor in place to combat cynicism. It’s a hard bar to clear.
By all popular standards, the musical “Altar Boyz” has done just that. This musical satire about an earnestly goofy Catholic boy band has run for over four years at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages, with touring productions throughout the United States and resident productions in Chicago, Korea, Hungary, Finland, Australia, and the Philippines. It’s also become a favorite at intimate venues throughout the country, including Bristol Riverside Theater in Bristol, PA, whose current production opens on Thursday, May 14, and runs through Sunday, May 31.
BRT’s production of “Altar Boyz” is unique for a few reasons, however. Gary Adler and Christopher Gattelli, the original production’s co-composer/lyricist and choreographer, respectively, are the music director and director/choreographer of BRT’s production. Moreover, both have strong ties to the theater and the city of Bristol itself.
“It’s exciting to have this show as my BRT debut,” says Gattelli, who grew up in Bristol and graduated from Bristol High School in 1990. “When I started my career in the ‘90s, the theater wasn’t yet opened. It’s great to come home.”
Gattelli’s father was a supervisor for Owens-Illinois, while his mother worked in a family-run restaurant business. Immediately after graduation, Gattelli began working his way up the performing ladder, appearing on Broadway in “Cats” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” As a choreographer, he has worked at regional theaters throughout the country and extensively on television, including stints as resident choreographer on the Rosie O’Donnell Show, the 2000 Tony Awards show, and David Letterman. His choreography has also been seen on Broadway in “The Ritz,” “13,” and the recent revivals of “Sunday in the Park with George” and “South Pacific.”
The child of a trombonist father and big-band-vocalist mother, Michigan native Gary Adler studied piano performance at the University of Michigan. He began his music-directing career at BRT almost two decades ago, with “A Day In Hollywood/A Night In the Ukraine.” He has worked both on Broadway and Off-Broadway for numerous shows including “Avenue Q,” “The Fantasticks,” “Chicago City Limits,” and “The Radio City Christmas Spectacular.” Adler also composed the incidental music for “Avenue Q,” and he created the musical world for Disney Channel’s “Johnny and the Sprites.”
The genesis of “Altar Boyz” occurred 10 years ago, over a series of conversations. “[Altar Boyz co-creator] Ken Davenport and I started talking in 1999 about a “Forever Plaid” style show,” Adler says. The initial concept used repurposed church hymns with new lyrics. “The problem we ran into was that church hymns aren’t particularly funny.”
The final concept ended up much like the show the audience will see at BRT — a five-man group of enthusiastic and goofily earnest boy-banders spreading a message of faith and spirituality.
‘It’s a dream show to choreograph,” says Grattelli, who has some experience with the show’s Catholic roots. “I grew up an altar boy at St. Anne’s, so that box was already checked.” The specificity of the characters’ religious background doesn’t hamper the universality of the show. “‘Altar Boyz’ welcomes all with open arms; you don’t have to be a Catholic to get the jokes,” says Grattelli.
The show takes the form of an Altar Boyz concert, with the humor and fun of the show walking a fine line between honest devotion and satire. “We carefully make sure each boy gets his moment. Each of them is totally committed [to the group’s mission], and that grounding allows for a lot of comedy,” says Grattelli.
Adler partially credits that same grounding for much of the show’s ongoing success. “At its heart, ‘Altar Boyz’ is about this band embracing their pop-thug roots while loving God and each other. The audience laughs at these vivid, oddball characters, as opposed to what they stand for.”
Adler also points to the musical’s budget-friendliness. “A lot of [the play’s regional success] might have to do with the economy; it’s big entertainment with a small cast.”
The members of the show’s initial creative team have gone on to become a part of numerous productions of “Altar Boyz” throughout the country. “It’s interesting to see how the productions with us involved have evolved, versus those without us involved,” says Adler. “Then again, with YouTube and everything else, there are moments you wouldn’t normally be able to recreate without us that end up getting worked in. I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. “
Adler’s favorite moment in the show is a surprise late in the first half, which involves a simple twist of lyrics that typically results in the audience exploding in laughter and applause. “The thing that surprised me most about this show is the variety and diversity of the audiences. You have people coming to see it for its camp value, and people who see it for its sincerity, and people who see it for everything in-between.
“Coming home has been a blast,” says Gattelli, whose next project may be his self-professed “dream show,” a Broadway adaptation of the Jim Henson TV special Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas. “It’s one of those shows that’s an endearing holiday favorite.”
Both Adler and Gattelli provide words of encouragement to the next generation of theater creators. “Well, it’s one of those things, where if you feel like you can do anything else, do that,” says Adler. “I’m not being negative, I mean that it’s just got to be about passion, and feeling like this is what you’ve got to do.”
Gattelli echoes those sentiments: “As long as you love it, just keep going. Eventually, there’s a payoff.”
“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. Note: Tickets for “Man of No Importance,” originally scheduled for May, are being honored for the date and time that had been reserved or purchased in advance.