Songs save acting, acting saves audience in Bethesda's heavenly "Altar Boyz"
Ah, the boy band - that treasure of the 1990s, lost but not forgotten. We all knew them, we all loved them and virtually every '90s child has some sort of opinion on the 'NSYNC vs. Backstreet Boys debate. "Altar Boyz," an off-broadway musical now playing at Bethesda Theatre, takes a look at the boy band phenomenon through the confession window.
The Altar Boyz - comprised of leader Matthew (Jared Zirilli), gentle Mark (Patrick Elliott), bad-boy Luke (Travis Morin), ethnic Juan (Michael Busillo) and token Jew Abraham (David R. Gordon) - are on the final night of their "Raise the Praise" tour, and their mission is to save the soul of every theatergoer. With the help of their Sony Soul-Sensor DX12, the Boyz heroically lift the spirit of every viewer with their upbeat songs and wildly hilarious dance routines.
Clearly, more talent can be found on the Blair stage than on in Bethesda Theatre. With five cleverly stereotyped characters, the script asked for strategic overacting. But it seemed the cast had two levels of acting - completely detached or totally over-the-top. Each of the Boyz passed up subtle acting opportunities to concentrate on the way they were moving their feet, so that, for example, when sparkles-loving Mark reveals a certain love interest, the turn of events seems out of place and random. The most talented "Altar Boyz" cast member has to be former CBS anchor Dan Rather as the recorded "Heavenly Voice."
A five-person cast on a small stage needs momentum to keep its audience. Luckily, that's one thing "Altar Boyz" has in surplus. The show's appeal undeniably lies in its clever banter and witty songs lyrics, with titles like "Church Rulez" and the addictive "Rhythm In Me" (which consists of all five Boyz shouting "God put the rhythm in me" paired with awkward seventh-grade dance moves). Put five good-looking charmers on stage and have them repeat the lines, and the show is bound to be at least entertaining. If the lame acting slowed the show's pace, Gary Adler's music and lyrics kept things moving and remained unfailingly humorous throughout the entire show. An added bonus is the live band in the back of the stage to enhance the feel of a pop concert.
The actors as individuals are proficient singers, but barely second-round "American Idol" material. Just as the band preaches teamwork, it is as a group that they shine musically, and thankfully most songs allowed for five-part harmonies (once again, props to Adler).
At 90 minutes, "Altar Boyz" is shorter than most films. It's a brief and entertaining distraction - not necessarily thought-provoking, but a welcome break from the seriousness of the real world. Choreographers Carlos Encinias and Christopher Gattelli put together entertaining dances that reflect each character and keep the audience's eyes glued on the small stage. Each of the Boyz commits himself to his dance moves over acting, which may be a sin in any other show, but works for "Altar Boyz." If only church were this entertaining.
"Altar Boyz" is showing until Nov. 30 at Bethesda Theatre. Tickets are $40.
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