Mass Appeal

This comedy about a Christian boy band is designed to please everyone.

click to enlarge READY TO WORSHIP: Cast members of Altar Boyz, now playing at Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota. - Maria Lyle
Maria Lyle
READY TO WORSHIP: Cast members of Altar Boyz, now playing at Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota.

It's easy to enjoy Altar Boyz, maybe too easy. After all, you'd think that a comedy about a Christian pop band might risk being irreverent or sanctimonious or at the very least too particularistic.

But everything about this show, which has been running in New York for three years, is designed to stymie criticism. The five members of the band aren't overly fervent in their expressions of faith; the many "satirical" songs, by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, employ only the gentlest of humor, and even the band's personalities — a couple of Protestants, one Hispanic, one gay, at least one Catholic and one Jew (he doesn't know what he's doing there) — are designed to please everybody.

So what's most ultimately noticeable about the show is how cannily it hedges its bets, how it manages in its 90 minutes to upset no one, challenge no one. This is theater-by-Harris-Poll. These guys must also write for Hillary Clinton.

The premise of the play is that we're at a concert by the popular group Altar Boyz — Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and Abraham — and that they're not only going to entertain us, they're going to assuage our guilty souls. Our spiritual state, it seems, is being probed by the Soul Sensor DX-12 (made by Sony), which can actually count how many audience members are burdened by sin. As the concert continues, the Soul Sensor will record a rise or fall in our guilt, and these brave Altar Boyz won't let us go until we're all washed clean as fresh snow.

The detergents of choice will be rock, pop and hip-hop — with lines like "God put the rhythm in me," "Praise the Lord with funk and rhyme," and "Jesus called me on my cell phone/ Roaming charges were incurred/ He told me that I should go out in the world/ And spread his glorious word."

Other methods will include a replay of the miracle that founded the Altar Boyz in the first place and a reading from audience confessions ostensibly dropped in a handy mailbox before the show began. A measure of the difficulty: When the Sensor is first used, a whopping 173 audience souls are said to be laden with guilt, which is pretty much the seating capacity at Florida Studio Theatre. Can the Boyz reduce this to zero? Can they sing and joke us to recovered purity?

Absolution never came more cheaply. The songs that the Boyz offer are harmlessly familiar-sounding; the religion they represent requires no effort; the banter on stage almost never touches raw nerves. There are a few pretty good jokes — the dense character Luke, for example, thinks "agnostic" is an eating disorder — but there's not a word to suggest that spiritual yearning is a serious matter.

There is one special exchange, though, all the more noticeable because it cuts so deep in an otherwise shallow field of discourse. This comes when the Christian character Mark asks, "Are Jewish people even allowed in church?" And Jewish Abe replies, "I think so: I just saw one on the cross above the altar." But such a powerful moment stands alone as Altar Boyz progresses, and silly hand puppets out of Shari Lewis, which appear for several minutes, are more in keeping with the show's general tenor. Even a kind of exorcism disappoints with its uninspired command to "get the hell out," and a somber segment about Juan's birth parents seems so out of place that it hardly registers.

But not to worry: Author Kevin Del Aguila, along with his lyricists, is devoted to giving us a good time. So we're cheered by Casey Gensler's portrayal of Matthew, the soulful surfer of a singer, and amused by John Ashley Brown as the dumb but sincere jock-vocalist with a heart of gold. Andrew Grosshandler plays lithe, gay Mark with exuberance and a winning smile, and J.P. Moraga as Juan represents Hispanic youth with charm and panache. Finally, James LaRosa as Abraham wears his yarmulke with pride and is careful to fend off the devil with a Star of David.

Richard Hopkins' direction is, as usual, intelligent and sure-handed, and Marcella Beckwith's costumes — think jeans and casual tops, some with the word "Jesus" printed on them — have that perfect look of undeliberate deliberation. Beckwith also designed the set, which is nothing more than a bandstand on which four musicians play while the Boyz sing and dance in front of them.

And speaking of song, I should mention that all the Boyz' voices are adequate but not outstanding. The dancing is entirely professional, though.

So the show is reductive, equivocal, even calculating. I could almost forgive all these forms of inauthenticity if it weren't for that contraption, the Soul Sensor DX-12.

It's not the function of the DX-12 that bothers me: I'm perfectly willing to imagine that it can look into our souls and see the accumulated sin weighing us down there. No, what bothers me is Altar Boyz's claim that, watching this silly musical, we're being cleansed, that all human evil is just a trifle to be disposed of with a few snappy tunes. I mean, sure, I can be cheered by a charming band of religious lightweights. But when you tell me that my spiritual/moral life is equally superficial, well, then I feel offended. And that makes the world Altar Boyz imagines utterly superficial.

The show's fun to watch.

But I can't remember another supposedly religious play, comedy or otherwise, that so trivializes its subject.

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