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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Altar Boyz — 11th Hour at Arts Bank

Altar Boys -- interiorSamuel Antonio Reyes does not appear on stage in 11th Hour Theatre’s production of “Altar Boyz,” but he is the unquestionable star of the show.

Reyes is the choreographer for director Megan Nicole O’Brien’s production, and he infuses 11th Hour’s staging with liveliness and verve that often transcends the flimsy, get-it-nudge-nudge material “Altar Boyz” has been foisting on audiences for more than a decade.

Yes, the show by Kevin del Aguila, Gary Adler, and Michael Patrick Walter is wildly popular. It has been a staple of regional theater since its off-Broadway success. Unlike “Forever Plaid” and Dan Goggin’s “Nunsense” series, “Altar Boyz” has no substance. Its songs are mostly one-joke trifles that don’t amount to much musically or lyrically and, in the 11th Hour production, lose any chance they have at charm or fleeting wit because the mikes are so hot, you can only understand the Adler and Walker lyrics during solos, perhaps an unintended blessing. (Overamplification has also obliterated words at Media and Bristol this month. Don’t sound engineers have ears?!?)

Del Aguila’s book is somewhat amiable, but it is hampered by a trite and rather annoying gimmick that involves an  alleged meter measuring how many souls in the audience are troubled and full of angst. The cast’s objective is to bring the number to “0,” so the boys can claim their music and spirituality purged the crowd on hand of sin and sorrow and brought them peace. The meter gambit eventually leads to a soppy, groan-worthy eye roller of a moral that makes you want to stand up and say, “Put a ‘1’ up there on that meter because this audience member’s soul harbors murderous thoughts, and he has no conscience about them.”

If it weren’t for Reyes and the energetically muscular dances he gives a talented and flexible cast, the 11th Hour “Altar Boys” would be a bust or a bore. No matter what tripe the cast is singing or what story they are trying to impart, the excitement generated by Reyes’s steps and the boys’ moves, especially those of Robert Hager (another savior of the production) and Adam Hoyak, gives the audience something truly thrilling to watch and truly smashing to cheer.

Reyes’s choreography sets every hip of every “Boy” gyrating and every leg shaking. Limbs fly in every direction, often in a synchronized motion, and Reyes’s dances pay homage to everything from Broadway and salsa to disco and burlesque. Hager, in particular, anchors many numbers with his fluid motions that say “talent” and “sexiness.” Hoyak is also fast, smooth, and lithe and keeps you fastened on his acrobatic grace. Billy Kametz also has some sharp moves, so things perk at the Arts Bank when music director Jamison Foreman, dressed in a black priest’s blouse and white collar, strikes up his able and lively band.

Dance is important to many a musical, but rarely should it be the element you praise, and await, above all others.

O’Brien’s production makes little, if any, attempt to make del Aguila’s book, based on a conception by Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport, come to physical life. O’Brien’s cast is attractive and likeable, but they keep their characters at the most superficial level. The boys remain jokes, cogs in a supposedly comic machine, but except for Hager (again), they never graduate to being flesh-and-blood people. None of their back stories, including how they came together to form a religious-based band, are told with any texture or with the slightest idea of making the audience listen to or care to what they have to say. O’Brien keeps everything light and upbeat while heading towards the next exuberant dance sequence.

Hager has an opportunity to show emotion, and while he conveys even sadness in a broad comic fashion, at least he allowed to display some acting range and make you feel a little concern for his character. Hager also, because he plays a Latino character and has a neat Googie Gomez/Sofia Vergara accent, makes his character stand out and endows him zest that makes the other boys seem even more shallow and sketchily drawn.

To catch you up, “Altar Boyz” is about a five-member rock group, all singers because none of them play instruments, who travel the country doing concerts with a purpose towards saving mortal souls. Three of the guys know each other from being actual altar boys at their Roman Catholic parish church. A fourth, who is gay, arrives after the leader of the group, Matthew, rescues him from homophobic bullying by relentless Episcopalians (those rowdies!). The fifth, although not Catholic, is critical to the band because he is only one adept at writing lyrics.

While on their U.S. tour, for which Philadelphia is the alleged last stop, the guys dedicate their music to insuring their audience’s heaven-bound journey (la vida eternal) via inspirational tunes that Adler and Walker probably mean to be satirical, but almost never bring to a level beyond sophomorically arch. The songs don’t mean as much as the dance in the 11th Hour production. You stop trying to decipher the lyrics and settle, happily, for the dancing. The quality of the singing is excellent, with each of the “Boyz” having a fine, strong voice and the group blending together in harmony. The best, the only good, part of the regular monitoring of the soul meter, is hearing the Jordanaire-tight harmony the 11th Hour quintet produces while summoning its next tally. I think you’re getting the picture. Musically, O’Brien’s show is aces. Dramatically, not so hot. Theatrically, a mixed bag in which the fun and exhilaration of the dancing more than compensates for the feeble book scenes.

The boys are an eclectic group. Their leader, Matthew (Hoyak) is the most typical churchgoer of the bunch. His friends — Mark, Luke, and Juan — are Catholic,  but Mark is the defended gay kid who has developed a crush on Matthew, Luke has a problem with kleptomania and occasionally earns state-sponsored vacations he chalks up to “exhaustion,” and Juan is an Hispanic orphan who longs to find the whereabouts of his birth parents.  The fifth guy, the lyricist, Abraham, is Jewish.

Bomber crew ensembles like this leave opening for various kinds of stories and jokes. Few of the stories told in “Altar Boys” are touching or funny, and the jokes are of the corny and obvious variety. They might work if a cast creates enough character interest to entice the audience to listen to dialogue and lyrics, but O’Brien’s production plays more like a revue. Takes are fast and facetless.  The actors wear the same broad smile and carry on the same conversational speech pattern no matter what the tenor of their lines. Only Hager, as Juan, escapes the superficial playing in 11th Hour’s mounting. He breaks through the jovial breeziness to define his character and make him palpable and complete.

That is why he elicits honest sympathy when Juan is given bad news on the occasion of his birthday. It’s why his lines register more than anyone else’s. It’s why he is the one you watch in ensemble scenes and dance numbers. As actors, the cast is uniformly attractive. As characters, only Hager’s Juan has dimension beyond the basic needs of putting on the play. You like Hoyak’s Matthew, Kametz’s Luke, Nicholas Park’s Mark, and Michael Linden’s Abraham, but you don’t relate to them as more than singers and dancers entertaining you. Even Linden’s Abraham does  not engender enough curiosity to make you care much about him when he’s not warbling or hoofing.

In O’Brien’s production, there is no show beyond the dances. They are the intricate and entertaining meat that makes 11th Hour’s “Altar Boyz” worthwhile and allow it to be fun. All strong memories of the show tie back to Reyes. In his opening number, the choreographer shows his humor when he has the boys go into a crucifixion pose. In all ways, he supplies the sass and physicality that spark enjoyment. Reyes’s visual and choreographic jokes are better than del Aguila’s verbal ones. Laughs based on dialogue or lyrics are hard to come by. Hoyak has a good moment when it looks as if he’s going to end a song about abstinence (“Something About You”) with a comment about masturbation but pauses cannily after “master” and goes on to finish the line, “master of my own fate.” There’s a knowing chortle when one character mentions “evolution,” and the other shush him and say, in a fake comic panic, he should never utter that word.

O’Brien’s cast works hard. Just keeping track of all of Reyes’s dance moves and surviving some of them without collapsing is an achievement. They are also amiable. Each performer is likeable and gives 100 percent as directed. There just seems to be no meat on “Altar Boyz’s” bones. By not establishing strong individual presences beyond the jokey stereotypes, no one but Hager has a a fair chance of making his character matter. That’s a shame because “Altar Boyz,” tissue thin and jerry-rigged as it is, could have some heart if we are made to care about the young men we see in front of us. That doesn’t happen. You understand Luke, Mark, Matthew, and Abraham and functionary characters but never as functioning people.

Hager’s material, especially his spoiled birthday scene, gives him more opportunity to build a solid character. Even before he receives his sad news, Juan, as played by Hager, breaks apart from the ensemble.

As I mentioned, the Spanish accent helps to differentiate him. But there’s something more. A spirit in the dance, a texture in line readings, and some injection of individual personality gives Hager an edge. He has more of a sparkle in his eye than his castmates. He isn’t playing a joke as much as portraying a character who is meant to be a joke. Hager exudes sincerity and dimension his castmates don’t strive to achieve.

That said, Adam Hoyek can be a flashy Matthew. Hoyek doesn’t show the stern leadership you might expect from Matthew, but he keeps things hopping and is an excellent centerpiece during some of Reyes’s more gymnastic and contortion-like numbers. You also believe Hoyek’s Matthew would come to Mark’s aid and ward off his tormentors.

Billy Kametz is cute when he talks about Luke’s lapses into crime and has good timing in delivering the word “exhaustion.” Nicholas Park has an affecting moment when he tells how Matthew acted as his avenging angel against the Episcopalians. Michael Linden is strong on vocals and can summon some ironic expressions as “the gefilte fish out of water,” Abraham.

John Bryant’s lighting design had a concertlike effect, especially when the stage went black and bright spotlights were trained on the audience. Maura Roche’s rainbow-lit steps, as in a Broadway revue, were a nice touch. Mark Valenzuela’s sound design was fine, but Valenzuela should come and work with the crew that controls sound on a daily basis, i.e. when Valenzuela isn’t present, to find the right volume level to make the cast audible and intelligible when they sing in ensemble. There is one instance of audience participation, but it only requires a chosen woman to sit on a chair and be serenaded, so the bit is not embarrassing or cloying.

“Altar Boyz,” produced by 11th Hour Theatre Company, runs through Sunday, June 1 at the Arts Bank, Broad and South Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. No matinee is scheduled for Saturday, May 24. Tickets are $31 and can be obtained by calling 267-987-9865 or by going online to www.11thhourtheatrecompany.org.

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