Altar Boyz | Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place

“Consumers are demanding more God in their entertainment than ever before,” declares a character in Altar Boyz, the off-Broadway hit about a Christian boy band. When the show debuted in 2004 the line referred to Mel Gibson’s gory film epic The Passion of the Christ. But today religion is an overwhelming force in American life, as politicians of all persuasions flaunt their faith. Republicans are asking whether “profamily” leaders will support thrice-married prochoice Catholic Rudy Giuliani, whether John McCain is really a Baptist (read conservative) or an Episcopalian (read liberal), and whether Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is a sect or a cult. Meanwhile Democrats ballyhoo belief as their source of strength in dealing with tribulations from a wife’s cancer to a husband’s infidelity. And just last Sunday, Fox News’s Chris Wallace cornered House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over whether she prays for U.S. soldiers in Iraq . . . to win. “Of course I do,” Pelosi purred. “What a question.”

Altar Boyz, now playing at Drury Lane Water Tower Place, provides a refreshing alternative to this divisiveness and discord. The show takes the form of a concert, a premise also employed by Forever Plaid (about a doo-wop group) and Nunsense (about stagestruck convent sisters). But underneath the witty song parodies, slangy dialogue, and comically sexy dances, Altar Boyz offers an intricately constructed narrative about five young friends whose emotional and moral journeys bring them to a personal and professional crossroads. Irreverent but never mean-spirited, this sweet, smart show preaches inclusion, brotherly love, and spiritual and ethical self-exploration while satirizing intolerance and holier-than-thou hypocrisy. It also cleverly tweaks stereotypes about Catholics, Jews, gays, Latinos, and hip-hop culture, finding the humor in these images even as it challenges them.

The Altar Boyz (“We’re here to alter your mind”) aren’t stars–they’re small-town kids who believe they’ve been directed by G.O.D. to spread the holy spirit through hip-hop. Each represents a distinctive boy-band type, but they’re not just caricatures. Like other teenagers, each is struggling to find his place in the world by finding his place in the group. And all are confronted by questions about their loyalty to one another and to the tenets of their faith.

Matthew seems the embodiment of wholesome, confident establishment Christianity. He’s the group’s front man, composer, and guardian of its image, delicately steering his comrades clear of inappropriate language, like “evolution.” But he has a dark secret that calls his moral leadership into question and makes him an outsider. Mark, the high tenor and choreographer, is the “sensitive one”–think Lance Bass, who proclaimed his homosexuality in a 2006 People cover story. But though Mark shares Bass’s fascination with space travel, he’s decidedly not ready to come out–even to himself. Like lisping Rooney on the Disney Channel’s The Doodlebops, Mark is innocently effeminate. He has a crush on Matthew (who once saved him from a beating by “Episcopalian thugs”) but sublimates it in dramatic religiosity, revealed in his showstopper “Epiphany.”

Juan, a macho Mexican, gives the group an “ethnic” flavor in his solo “La Vida Eternal.” Abandoned by his parents, he’s come to the United States to search for them. (His immigration status, like Mark’s sexuality, is never addressed.) Rebellious stoner Luke–recently returned from the New Horizon Rejuvenation Center, where he was treated for “exhaustion”–has an edgy rapper attitude and the clothes to match, but his baggy jeans don’t impede his acrobatic dancing. And Abraham, the yarmulke-wearing Jewish human beatbox, writes the lyrics for Matthew’s melodies but can’t figure out why the Lord has directed him to join this band. Turns out his presence is a test of faith–for everyone. Though the show steers clear of gags about Jews for Jesus and Christian Zionists, Abe’s unorthodox relationship to his Catholic brethren is fundamental to the show’s twist ending.

The musical’s creators revel in double entendres, inside jokes, and savvy spoofs of hip-hop cliches, all delivered with hilarious naivete by the Altar Boyz. The flamboyant, tightly synchronized dances are exhilaratingly athletic and supremely silly. The songs–inspired by the likes of ‘N Sync, New Kids on the Block, Ricky Martin, and Michael Jackson–comically fuse religious imagery and a goofy pop-culture sensibility, with lyrics like “Jesus called me on my cell phone” and “Girl, you make me wanna wait.” (Matthew, an abstinence advocate, croons the line to a randomly selected female viewer in one of the funniest audience-participation bits I’ve ever seen.) And in a nod to the corrupting influence of record-industry money on musical artists, the Boyz are backed by a high-tech “Sony Soul Sensor DX-12,” which digitally displays the number of sinners in the audience. (It’s not important how the device works, Matthew explains, but merely that it does.)

Altar Boyz is the work of a gifted, unusually large creative team. Broadway performer Marc Kessler saw a Christian rock band on TV and brought the idea it inspired to producer Ken Davenport (creator of The Awesome 80s Prom). They recruited playwright Kevin Del Aguila, songwriters Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker (who worked separately, each contributing half the score’s dozen tunes), choreographer Christopher Gattelli, and director Stafford Arima, a veteran of New York, regional, and London theater and an unabashed boy-band fan.

A touring version of Altar Boyz played last year at the 1,950-seat LaSalle Bank Theatre. Now two of the producers of the Broadway hit Spring Awakening have brought the show to the 533-seat Drury Lane Water Tower Place, again under Arima’s direction. The cast–backed by an onstage band and egged on by an invisible deity whose booming baritone is provided by veteran WGN broadcaster Roy Leonard–includes Devin DeSantis as Matthew, Brian Crum as Mark, Adam Zelasko as Juan, Tyler McGee as Luke, and Nick Verina as Abe. All five are up to the demands of the high-energy choreography and the tight harmonies of the infectious score. More important, they bring an eager, idiosyncratic charm to their characters as each charts his unique course in the search for meaning. This inventive concept musical skillfully, almost imperceptibly transforms running gags and pop-culture parody into a multidimensional, funny, yet moving work of theatrical storytelling.

Through 11/25: Tue 7:30 PM, Wed 2 and 7:30 PM, Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 and 5 PM, Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut, 312-642-2000, $45-$75.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Altar Boyz photo by Michael Brosilow.