The cast of Altar Boyz
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
The cast of Altar Boyz
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
[Ed. Note: This is the first in a series of TM review roundups of shows in the New York Musical Theatre Festival.]

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If there's a funnier song in this year's crop of new musicals than the one from Altar Boyz that includes the lyric "Jesus called me on my cell phone," we can count our blessings. Indeed, if there's a more imaginative tuner than Altar Boyz, we have cause to drop an extra-large bill on the collection plate. And even if nothing comes along to top the hilariously diverting show -- every second of which hits the musical comedy bull's eye -- we should thank a higher power for what we have here.

Altar Boyz has a simple, direct premise: A boy band devoted to spreading God's word is giving a final soul-saving concert in Manhattan. The five members -- Matthew (Cheyenne Jackson), Mark (Tyler Maynard), Luke (Andy Karl), Juan (Ryan Duncan), and Abraham (David Josefsberg) -- gauge the souls that need saving with the help of a "soul sensor" called DX12. Performing a series of routines that they believe will enable them to reach their goal, they also interact with each other. Before they've saved the last hold-out soul, they've revealed their quirks and gotten a room-shaking audience response through a series of amusing routines.

The Altar Boyz libretto is Kevin Del Aguila's work, from a "conception" by Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport. Glory to whichever of the three imagined the "Confession Sessions," wherein supposed audience confessions are taken under advisement, and the group biography sequence, comprised of the members' supposed recollections. These and other thigh-slapping segments add up to the most inspired musical comedy since Urinetown. The dozen songs are the work of Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, each of whom contributed six resounding ditties. Each number tunefully mines a different genre, which means that there's something here for everyone -- including Ricky Martin fans, since one of the entries is "La Vida Eternal." The quotable lyrics are intelligent and helium-light. One, about getting over Catholic shame, refers to people who think "it's dope / To confess your sins and like the Pope."

The creators make sure that each of the personality-plus Altar Boyz shines in solos. When performing together, as flawlessly directed by Stafford Arima and choreographed within an inch of their saved lives by Christopher Gattelli, they're a new constellation. Praise be to the god of musicals!

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Harry Houdini devoted his life to escaping, and not just from handcuffs, chains, and his water torture cell; he also attempted clean getaways from facts. He changed his name from Ehrich Weiss and his birthplace from Hungary to Appleton, Wisconsin. For publicity reasons, he altered more than a few additional biographical details.

The creators of Houdini -- librettist-lyricist James Racheff and composer-lyricist William Scott Duffield -- also want to dodge pesky truths while putting across their tuner. Apparently believing that the portrait of Houdini in Ragtime is only the tip of the escape hatch, they unbundle a Houdini saga that is at once longer and not long enough. The show is a sprawling, 18-actor extravaganza (though with only the sketchiest costumes), and the magic acts in it are mighty impressive. But the authors haven't settled on what they want to say about Harry (played by Timothy Gulan, who has one helluva voice) or about brother Theo (Ken Barrett). Taking too much time to follow Houdini as he and wife Bess work the turn-of-the-20th-century carnival circuit, the collaborators can't decide whether they're relaying Harry's past or Theo's. In scrutinizing the magician brothers, Racheff and Duffield harp on the siblings' rivalry for Bess (the always dependable Barbara Walsh), an aspect of their relationship that may or may not be historically accurate.

While pressing this point along with Harry's devotion to his Yiddish-speaking mamaleh, the collaborators rarely hone in on what made Houdini tick. In a song called "Wonder," sung more than once, Houdini wishes for a shining moment -- but such a vague wish is poor motivation for an entire show. Those associated with this musical seem to have looked for inspiration to Jekyll & Hyde, which unleashed "This Is the Moment" on an unsuspecting public. The gratuitous hommage is strengthened in that Jekkie leading man Robert Cucciolli here does a bang-up job as Houdini's biggest booster, impresario Martin Beck. But only trouble lies ahead when Broadway aspirants crib from the Andrew-Lloyd-Webber-cribbing Frank Wildhorn. "I can get out of anything," Houdini brags. Yes, but can he escape from this half-measure show into something more meaningful?

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Martin Croft in Joe Starts Again
Martin Croft in Joe Starts Again
A musical about throwing oneself into the dating market after a partner has died can have universal appeal; witness the classic Hello, Dolly!, in which Dolly Gallagher Levi asks late hubby Ephraim for permission to move on. But Joe Starts Again, in which the eponymous fellow asks his deceased lover to wish him luck, covers the same territory in what could be termed a niche-musical manner.

Joe Thompson (Martin Croft, who wrote the lyrics to Dean Lotherington's melodies) is a 49-year-old gay man who's using a dating service to put himself out there. The hour-long piece that he commands, which ends just before his first date with an appropriate man, is so precise in its concerns and so emotionally honest that its immediate connection will surely be to one of musical theater's most supportive core audiences: homosexual men of a certain age. This is not to say that anyone uncertain about trying love the second time around won't respond, and -- man or woman -- get a kick out of the show's central comedy number, "I Shave My Balls."

Undoubtedly, actor-lyricist Croft has weathered Joe's experiences. That would explain the indisputably authentic feel to Joe's trying to get a prospective video right, to his recovering from an inadvertent date with a woman, to his stumbling through initial phone calls, and so on. The tall, bald and attractive Croft is writing about what he knows -- to some extent, at least. Composer Lotherington, while not supplying tunes that stick to the memory for the nearly sung-through show, does keep things melodic.

The dating service begins to seem a highly questionable enterprise when Joe is told by the service's unseen Sebastian to gay-up his video address. Do minions in this line of work truly suggest that clients mention Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand? Maybe so, but such clichés help to perpetuate harmful myths. It's commendable that Croft has Joe recoil from the suggestion -- though, eventually, he gives in. His affronted take is one of many epiphanies that Croft and Lotherington have packed into their adaption of Dating Joe, a play that Croft wrote with Mark Fletcher. Those worried about the future of the blockbuster musical can be heartened that the chamber musical alternative has candidates like Joe Starts Again.

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One oppressive rule of thumb for writing musicals today is: Adapt a movie, any movie. It doesn't matter whether the targeted flick lends itself to adaptation. Dive in feet first! That certainly looks like what Andrew Gerle (librettist-composer) and Eddie Sugarman (librettist-lyricist) have done with Meet John Doe, based on the 1941 Frank Capra film of the same title with a screenplay by Robert Riskin, which was in turn based on a story by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell. The tuner's creators don't know or don't care that the flick, which stars Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, may have made money but is regarded as a fall-off from Capra's best work.

The dark-as-funeral-bunting tale involves newspaper woman Ann Mitchell (here played by Donna Lynne Champlin) who decides to save her job by creating fictional forgotten man John Doe, who supposedly writes a letter to the editor threatening to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. To avoid being caught in the hoax, Mitchell, managing editor Connell (Guy Paul), and publishing mogul D. B. Norton (Patrick Ryan Sullivan) hire drifter John Willoughby (Michael Halling) to impersonate the made-up galoot. In no time, with Mitchell penning the imposter's rabble-rousing speeches, there are John Doe clubs across the nation. But it turns out that Norton has cynical White House ambitions for his dupe and himself. When Doe/Willoughby gets wind of how diabolically he's being used, he seriously contemplates killing himself, and Ann finds herself in a pickle.

Gerle and Sugarman remain largely faithful to the film. (One change: In the movie, Doe goes to City Hall for his proposed leap; in the musical, it's the Brooklyn Bridge.) But for all their handiwork, being faithful isn't the best idea. For starters, the source material is numbingly humorless. Secondly, it reflects Capra's Depression-prompted hand-wringing about the little man, an attitude that's now severely dated. Thirdly, we live at a time when not even Rupert Murdoch would back a scam with the backfire potential of Ann Mitchell's totally unsympathetic maneuver; just look at what's happening this week at CBS after the phony Bush-National Guard assessments. Gerle and Sugarman couldn't anticipate these headlines, but the change in people's perception of the press demonstrates how much of a role timing plays in the success of a new musical.

Meet John Doe is worthy of praise for Sugarman's brittle lyrics and Donna Lynne Champlin's committed performance. Champlin lines out Ann Mitchell's songs as if her career, not just Mitchell's job, depended on it. Halling is a Cooper-like presence as major-league baseball aspirant Doe, and Sullivan is rightly unctuous as the arch-villain publisher. Still, smart though some of the songs and dialogue are, this show registers as yesterday's news.