The peak of the so-called boy band craze in pop music came in about the year 2000; by 2002, the fashion was over. Altar Boyz, a musical about a boy band, arrived off-Broadway on March 1, 2005, which may be as close to currency as the musical theater gets. But there is nothing as out as that which was recently in, and the show plays as a period piece no less than Forever Plaid, another off-Broadway musical about a male vocal group. And similar to Forever Plaid, Altar Boyz is intended as a lightly satiric, yet affectionate take on its subject. The big joke here is that the fictional Altar Boyz are a group of Catholics -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Juan (and, oh, yes, Abraham, who, for reasons never really explained, is Jewish) -- and they are here to sing about their faith. They do so in the combination of dance, Latin, and ballad styles, complete with overly emotive harmony and solo singing, that will be familiar to anyone who's ever heard a Backstreet Boys album. Songwriters Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker clearly have their tongues in their cheeks. "Church Rulez" is an account of what the Catholic Mass is like, with its constant cycle of standing, sitting, and kneeling. "The Calling" announces that Jesus Christ has spoken to the singers -- by calling on a cell phone! "The Miracle Song" repeats familiar Gospel tales in rap style. The big romantic ballad, "Something About You," finds lead singer Matthew (Scott Porter) explaining to his girlfriend his adherence to abstinence. "La Vida Eternal," the inevitable Latin track inevitably handled by Juan (Ryan Duncan), reveals that "the afterlife is not a scary place." And "Epiphany," with lead vocals by Mark (Tyler Maynard), is a declaration of Catholic identity in terms reminiscent of a homosexual coming-out ("this is who you are, it's not a choice"). The singers, of course, render all these potted sentiments with mock sincerity, and, particularly on the cast album, it's possible to mistake that for real sincerity now and then. At very least, the songwriters have brought a knowledge of their musical and theological subjects to their writing, and as much sympathy as critical intent. And maybe the boy band trend has been gone just long enough to be ripe for such treatment. Meanwhile, both non-believers and the devout (as long as they have a sense of humor) should enjoy the music.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann