Theatre Memphis stages slick spoof of Christian boy bands

"Altar Boyz" in the Next Stage at Theatre Memphis through Nov. 18 stars Christopher Hanford (from left), Cody James, Stephen Garrett, Bruce Huffman and Joseph Johnson.
Photo by Theatre Memphis

"Altar Boyz" in the Next Stage at Theatre Memphis through Nov. 18 stars Christopher Hanford (from left), Cody James, Stephen Garrett, Bruce Huffman and Joseph Johnson. Photo by Theatre Memphis

“Altar Boyz”

Performances: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 18 at Theatre Memphis, 630 Perkins Ext.

Tickets are $28 for adults, $15 for students. Call 901-682-8323.

The power of attractive, hormonally charged young men to nudge people closer to rapture via angel-sweet voices and devilish dance moves was on full display last week at a certain concert of pop music that, by the last song, had most of the audience making a joyful noise unto the Lord.

Relax: this isn't about Justin Bieber.

This is about "Altar Boyz," a 2005 musical comedy now running at Theatre Memphis that may likely be the funniest show of the season.

The laughter never subsided at opening night of this dynamically stunning and comedically rich production about a Christian boy band from Ohio that is wrapping up its "Raise the Praise" tour.

Combine the sincerity of "Forever Plaid" with the energy of 'N Sync, and you've got the ingredients for a show that is almost too big for the theater's Next Stage.

The five lads — each a different personality type — sincerely want to save our souls and promote the word of God. They even have a special bit of technology — a "Sony Soul Sensor" — which scans the audience and reveals how many hearts they've yet to redeem.

As Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and Abraham set out to "altar" your mind, they also partake in soul-searching of their own.

Stephen Garrett, as Matthew, is the level-headed leader of the bunch who perfectly deadpans an ode to abstinence. As the flamboyant Mark, Bruce Huffman is the show's most watchable actor — always in character, ready to catch you by surprise with saucy facial expressions and outlandish vocal flourishes.

Cody James' Luke is a nervous ball of blinding white faux hip-hop energy, while Christopher Robert Hanford's Juan seduces the ladies in the audience with his Ricky Martin charisma. Joseph Johnson rounds out the quintet as the totally out-of-place Jewish member, Abraham, who writes the group's lyrics.

Hearing and understanding those lyrics — often garbled or muffled by the amped-up sound system — was a major challenge in an otherwise technically well-made show, enhanced by Jeremy Fisher's lighting that unites rock-concert pomp and cabaret camp.

So many funny bits are hidden in the details of Cecelia Wingate's clever direction, it's sometimes hard to tell who's getting the laugh.

Perhaps the show's single most impressive element is the spot-on execution of Jared Thomas Johnson's high-octane choreography. Johnson makes fun of hokey, synchronized boy-band dancing while also using its athleticism to make a powerful visual impact. It's impressive work for a first-time choreographer.

While "Altar Boyz" spoofs the wholesome image of Christian boy bands, it also burnishes it. Relentlessly positive and thoroughly funny, few other musical comedies riff on religious fervor with so much charm and goodness.

© 2012 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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