This boy-band musical comes from a pre-social media age, and it should have stayed there.
Until either a meteor or an atomic bomb hits (my money’s on the bomb), boy bands are never going to go out of style. New Kids on the Block gave way to ’N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, which gave way to One Direction, which gave way to BTS, which will inevitably give way to some new clustering of fresh-faced future youths.
In that sense, the 2005 musical Altar Boyz, with music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Waller and a book by Kevin Del Aguila, will never go out of style either. The boy-band formula is so rock solid, the member-types so canonical, that generations from now people will be able to see the show and instantly grasp its meaning.
And yet, Altar Boyz has aged, mainly in the broadness with which it parodies Christianity. This is quite evident in Theo Ubique’s new revival that eschews, for obvious budgetary reasons, the grand, arena-conquering bombast of earlier productions.
It’s a tale of an ersatz band of Catholic boys (and one Jewish kid) who sing silky pop hits about God, abstinence and the devil. Onstage at what just might be their last performance ever, the boys play the hits and try to use their “Soul Sensor” machine to pinpoint and save every lost soul in the audience.
As we’re introduced to the various band members—the leader, Matthew (Max DeTogne); cutie-pie Mark (Frankie Leo Bennett); shirt-averse bad boy Luke (Colin Schreier); Jewish heartthrob Abraham (Steven Romero Schaeffer); and, um, the token person of color, Juan (Marco Tzunux) who vacillates between squirmingly uncomfortable Latino stereotype and a pitch-perfect send-up of Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias—we mostly see a group of earnest, Christ-loving lads who lack the power and status to be truly worth mocking.
And while the performers are uniformly strong (with Schaeffer and Bennett as the two standouts) and the songs still delightfully catchy, director Courtney Crouse’s lo-fi take brings into focus how unfocused the show’s aims really are.
Altar Boyz is at its best when its skewers are aimed at specific targets: When the clearly closeted Mark tells his story “coming out” as a Catholic, for instance. The song targets homophobia as well as many Christians’ unearned sense of persecution. The aim is true, the point is sharp, the moment is a palpable, points-on-the-board hit. But many of the show’s other moments seem to be simply mocking the boys’ earnestness. Really, what it’s mocking is their faith itself.
It’s this broad, late-night style of mockery that feels so out-of-date, betraying the show’s pre-social media origins. Back in 2005, a show aimed at mocking conservative Christianity could launch scattershot volleys without worrying about collateral damage. Even if someone was offended, what were they going to do: blog about it? But the rise of Twitter and Facebook has created a society where almost no minority opinion is too narrow to start a hashtag campaign.
A show like Altar Boyz that was written in 2017 (instead of simply updated, like this production is, to include jokes about Snapchat) would have to slash at its target with a much finer blade and a more deliberative aim, lest people (rightly) come out of the woodwork and (rightly) start calling it out.
This isn’t to make a #notallchristians argument, but rather to say that going through the crucible of online critique might actually be to this show’s benefit. Attention spans may be getting shorter, but our standards for the discourse behind comedy and satire are getting much higher. Ask any lazy comedian.
Altar Boyz doesn’t mock the hypocrisies of faith so much as it mocks faith itself. That might have flown in 2005 but these days it doesn’t pass muster. Or at least it shouldn’t. And besides, we’ve got freaking Nazis to worry about now. Anyone want to write a musical about them?
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at No Exit Café. Music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Waller. Book by Kevin Del Aguila. With Frankie Leo Bennett, Max DeTogne, Steven Romero Schaeffer, Colin Schreier, Marco Tzunux. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.