Matthew Buckner, Ryan J. Ratliff, Jesse JP Johnson,Jay Garcia, and Nick Blaemire in Altar Boyz
(© Carol Rosegg)
Matthew Buckner, Ryan J. Ratliff, Jesse JP Johnson,
Jay Garcia, and Nick Blaemire in Altar Boyz
(© Carol Rosegg)
If the five dynamite performers in the touring version of Altar Boyz were a real band, rather than actors pretending to be a band on tour, they could wreak some serious psychological damage among the prepubescent population. They're that good, even if the product that the quintet is pushing veers a bit from the norm. What the Boyz -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham -- are selling isn't so much raw sex appeal, though there's plenty of that, but a smarmy, neo-Christian religiosity.

Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport came up with the concept for the show. Kevin Del Aguila wrote the book, and Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker contributed a half-dozen songs apiece. The seamlessly effective, hilarious result -- which debuted at the 2004 New York Musical Theater Festival before opening at New World Stage (then Dodger Stages), where it reigns still -- quickly snagged a heap of encomia and award nominations. Christopher Gattelli justly won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Choreographer; ordinarily, to see moves this imaginative, energetic, and slick, you'd have to frequent gay clubs.

That might not be a bad idea for Mark (Ryan J. Ratliff), who has a glaringly obvious crush on band leader Mathew (Matthew Buckner). As with a real boy band, the temptation to pick a favorite is inevitable -- in fact, it's half the point -- and Ratliff's puppy-eager performance, abetted by an astonishing male-coloratura vocal quality, is irresistible. Mark's look emits immediate cues as to his orientation, from his baby-blue polo shirt (by costumer Gail Brassard) to the frosted tips of his hair. But just in case you miss the message, the lyricists have inserted some not quite subliminal messages in several songs; for example, "Put it in me!" is Mark's insistent refrain in the number "Rhythm in Me."

As Mark's love object, Matthew, Buckner seems proficient but a bit colorless until it's his turn to shine in the brilliantly seditious "Something About You," an ode to the virtues of "waiting." (Warning to young women: If you don't want to end up onstage, don't show up looking meek and demurely dressed. "Marymagdelicious" might be more the ticket.) "When I hold your body next to mine, it feels so right," Matthew croons. "It also makes my Levis feel real tight."

Each of the apostolically named proselytizers gets his moment in the spotlight, as does Abraham (Nick Blaemire), the Jewish convert in the bunch. The quick-sketch profile of the Hispanic member, Juan (Jay Garcia), occasionally borders on offensive, but Garcia saves the day with a wonderfully melodramatic portrayal of a performer who, at one point, is too overcome by emotion to carry on. Judy Garland would surely approve.

Meanwhile, Luke (Jesse JP Johnson) has his own difficulties to deal with: He's just out of rehab for "exhaustion," and his intellect isn't going to carry him far. In his view, agnosticism need be no impediment to heeding the word of God, which is still meaningful "even if you've got an eating disorder." As the suitably thunderous recorded Voice of God, Shadoe Stevens hands down all sorts of useful marketing tips, such as "Thou shalt gird thy hair with product."

The amping of the music is thunderous, also, to the point where the reverberant bass will shiver your undergarments. All in all, Altar Boyz is a moving experience, one sure to attract new congregants to the Church of Musical Theatre.