ALTAR BOYZ – A Venial Sin at the Orpheum Theatre

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Copyright © 2007 San Francisco Sentinel

Altar Boyz is a major near miss. Touted as the “longest running new musical”, Altar Boyz is no Jersey Boys. The show is described as a “spoof” – presumably of Boy Bands, possibly of Christian Pop/Rock groups, and (maybe) traditional evangelical tent-type revivals – this one (supposedly) attended by lots of Roman Catholics. By definition, Altar Boyz is not a spoof. Nor is it a satire. It targets adolescents and appeals to young adults inclined toward theatrical groupie (camp-follower) behavior, i.e., multiple and incessant viewings, related bloggings, and streams of personal e-mail to home page web sites. However comic or street-wise or brutally pedestrian the lyrics might seem upon first hearing, another read-through reveals that any of its songs might be easily and safely presented “out of context” to religious assemblages, i.e., Christian-based youth groups, and then be lauded by its counselors and chaperones for not only serving The Word, but uplifting the “Conservative Agenda”, and lauded for its inspired cleverness. Hallelujah.

Altar Boyz, as presented in New York City, became the recipient of the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical Off-Broadway because it fit the definition and beat-out its worthy competition. By contrast, minus any qualifying adjectives pertaining to locale, the Tony Awards for “Best Musical” go to productions within an understood and specifically designated area of New York City, produced by an individual, individuals or a group meeting specified criteria, and employing performers belonging to Actors Equity Association. Ergo, any Off-Broadway theatre piece with songs and dances may not be nominated for a Tony since it does not conform to stated and time-honored definitions of a Broadway Musical. Hence, Altar Boyz does not belong under the Shorenstein-Nederlander 2007 subscription series banner, “The Best of Broadway”. Likewise falling short, the 2006 pre-Broadway out-of-town try-out production of Fame Becomes Me featuring Martin Short and the bus & truck non-membership tour of Rent. So what?! As long as the boyz are adorable.

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Photo by Carol Rosegg

The Catholic Church describes Venial sins (as opposed to Mortal sins) as those being easily excused, simply forgiven, and pardonable. Assigned penances are equally light and arbitrary, perhaps a string of “Hail Marys” or meditations around the twelve Stations of the Cross. Even so, if not performed immediately and should “the worst” occur – as it did to the boys in Forever Plaid, that being a fatal car crash before arriving to their first major gig – the blemished soul is subject to expiation, to temporal punishment (it used to happen in the purifying flames of Purgatory) and must remain outside the Heavenly Gates for God-only-knows how long. An “Off-Broadway Show” is not a congregation in a state of waiting, in the hopes of being admitted to or “On Broadway” (it used to mean the actual street) and, thus, on the receiving end of Glory and Immortality. In fact, the vast majority of Off-Broadway productions – with liberated casts and crews – exalt Simplicity, magnify Minimalism, and (like The Fantasticks) find their Paradise way-off the Great White Compass. Moreover, one of the few defining points of Off-Broadway dogma pertains to its seating potentials – not less than 100, no more than 500. Exit the Disney folks.

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The ALTAR BOYZ – Veer off Off-Broadway

New York’s Altar Boyz proselytize their thing at the same location (340 West 50th, between 8th and 9th) where X-rated Naked Boys Singing (they were and they did) shook their things downwind in front of 199 fascinated viewers. When Naked Boys Singing was produced at San Francisco’s Theatre Rhino – seating capacity, 119 – everyone witnessed an even greater frontal view and, given the climactic excitement of natural un-plugged volume – went home in good faith knowing the Unreachable, with ear drums intact, eyes wide open, humming snatches from a fetching score belted out by guys with distinctive charms. San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre seats 2203. Binoculars, please! Stretched across the apron of this 1926 Orpheum stage, a full-figured “Aïda” and a team of trained elephants swinging their trunks to and fro could entertain an Egyptian platoon and have room to spare. And, without a microphone, the silver-throated soprano would be audible to the last row, a full orchestra blaring in the pit. Here, in this mammoth theatrical structure, it’s about the magic of the magicians and not the size of the wands. A quintet of naked boys singing would agree. Even with their stomping and outstretched choreography, shimmying pelvises, and state-of-the-art mikes pushed to 10 – these five heavenly-lit Altar Boyz cannot fill the breadth and cavernous jaws of the Orpheum Theatre. They are lost in the loftiness of this Paradise of Spanish cathedral-type architecture.

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Photo by Carol Rosegg

This production of Altar Boyz is not the best of Broadway. It is not a traveling replication of the theatre piece awarded in New York. The boyz, however, are in fact better than their material. Matthew Buckner (Matthew), Ryan J. Ratliff (Mark), Jesse JP Johnson (Luke), Jay Garcia (Juan), and Ryan Strand (Abraham) are wonderfully adept in their assigned roles. San Francisco will have a more profound effect upon their professional (or spiritual) lives than will this silly show. The producers, however, are not as easily pardoned. It was a rather pathetic choice to have Mr. Buckner halt the final applause and ask the audience to sell the show to friends.

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San Francisco Sentinel’s Fine Arts Critic Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Ask him a question on AllExperts.com . If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: seanmartinfield@att.net.

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