The simple, elegant premise is that the five members of a Christian boy group are determined to cleanse sinners' souls on the last leg of their "Raise the Praise" tour. With the help of a tracking device called the Soul Sensor DX-12, the hip and hip-hopping quintet vows to rejuvenate every soul in the audience through a series of invigorating songs and exercises. Among the latter is a "Confession Sessions" sequence during which the boyz respond to questions that audience members have supposedly written on index cards.
The guys are Matthew (Scott Porter), Mark (Tyler Maynard), Luke (Andy Karl), Juan (Ryan Duncan), and Abraham (David Josefsberg). While carrying on their altruistic crusade, they take time to reveal how they originally bonded (despite Abraham's being Jewish). Eventually, they face an 11th-hour crisis that jeopardizes their staying together. (It has nothing to do with the loss of commercial interest in boy groups.) Before they get the number of needy souls in the crowd down to zero, the foundling Juan learns the whereabouts of his parents. That's all you need to know of the show before sitting back to enjoy its multitudinous delights and surprises, which arrive every other second. (Wait for the hand puppets.) Well, "sitting back" isn't an accurate description, since the piece has such magnetism that patrons are drawn to the edge of their seats and are compelled to bop along with the music. Anyone who can laugh at the eccentricities of religious fervor and is ready to chortle over boy-group clichés is guaranteed to fall in love with Altar Boyz, no questions asked.
But a reviewer wants to tick off the scores of reasons why Altar Boyz is so damned good (that is, if a show about salvation can be called "damned"). In the beginning, there's the concept -- courtesy of Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport -- which begat the Kevin Del Aguila libretto and the songs by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker. Perhaps the greatest triumph of Del Aguila's book is that, while almost every line is a laugh-getter, the playwright has created amusingly disparate three-dimensional characters to propel the action; Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham are types but not stereotypes. Del Aguila mocks with an ever-so-light touch the skewed values that often are hallmarks of religious fervor today, yet not once during this 90-minute musical sermon does he sermonize.
As for the Adler-Walker score, the first thing to be said about it is this: Every single one of the dozen numbers is melodic and funny. (Incidentally, Adler and Walker didn't collaborate but contributed six ditzy ditties each.) Part of the songs' power is that the ideas behind them are unexpected; they catch you off guard with lyrics like "Jesus called me on my cell phone." In an 'N Sync-like love song promoting sexual abstinence, the boyz sing, "Something about you, baby girl / You make me want to wait." Not since Urinetown have tunesmiths contrived to mock genres in such an entertaining way while simultaneously honoring them. Were this still a time when Top-10 recording artists and shrewd A&R people searched musical comedy scores for hits, Altar Boyz would yield a handful.