- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 6, 2005

NEW YORK - The girls — most of them no older than 15, many wearing star-struck expressions — cluster around the souvenir stand after the concert, eagerly eyeing band T-shirts and CDs.

It’s predictable behavior for the teens and tweens, who have just watched a gyrating concert by an up-and-coming boy band, complete with a polished, square-jawed, all-American frontman.

This is not Madison Square Garden, however. It’s a small, spare building west of Midtown. And it wasn’t really a concert. It was theater — and religion. Sort of.

So it goes eight shows a week for “Altar Boyz,” the energetic off-Broadway musical about a Christian boy band out to save the souls of its audience at the close of its Raise the Praise tour in New York.

Meet Matthew (the dreamy one), Mark (the sensitive one), Luke (the tough guy) and Juan (the Ricky Martin sound-alike). Then there’s Abraham (the Jewish one, whose big number is “Everybody Fits”).

They look the part and dance the part. It’s easy to imagine these five on MTV’s “Total Request Live.”

Until you hear the lyrics.

Early in the first number: “And we feel so good/It never fails to please us/When we spread the word of the one and only Jesus.”

Later: “Jesus called me on my cell phone/No roaming charges were incurred/He told me that I should go out in the world/And spread his glorious word.”

Then, quintessentially, in a ballad sung to an audience member: “Girl, you make me wanna wait.”

Here, just west of Manhattan’s theater district — possibly the bluest enclave of the bluest island in a decidedly blue state — you might expect a show that openly mocks religion.

“Altar Boyz,” however, is disarmingly sincere. The five Boyz come across as devoted to their message. For the most part, theirs is a musical that does not wink at its audience.

“If you’re on the cynical end, you don’t feel preached to, and if you’re on the very religious end, you don’t feel like your beliefs are being mocked,” says Michael Patrick Walker, who wrote the music and lyrics with Gary Adler.

“We just sort of go down the middle and let people take away what they want from it.”

The show opened in March at Dodger Stages to favorable reviews and has an open-ended run. A national tour is planned for the fall, with the first stop in Detroit.

“Altar Boyz” is the brainchild of Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport, both of whom have Catholic backgrounds. Mr. Davenport says they originally tried “boy-banding up” actual Christian music.

Only with original music and lyrics did the show find its voice. The current 12-song lineup includes numbers about exorcism, rules of the church and the various miracles performed by “J.C.”

It is a physically exhausting show, fully choreographed, with dance moves worthy of ‘N Sync or the Backstreet Boys. When the Altar Boyz dramatically take swigs of bottled water between songs, you realize it’s for the benefit of the actors as much as the characters.

“I’m down to my birth weight,” jokes the whippet-thin Tyler Maynard, who plays Mark — a good-natured, enthusiastic cheerleader for the group who has developed a moony-eyed crush on his lead singer.

“My goal was that I wanted everyone to kind of fall in love with these boys,” director Stafford Arima says. “We all have our favorites. We connect with them on some visceral level.”

That’s never more true than for the admiring girls who line up night after night at the stand marked “Sacred Souvenirs,” which sells shirts stamped with phrases such as “Good Girls Wait.”

The die-hards have even started a Web site, buzzing about cast news and reviews and swooning over their favorite Altar Boyz.

“They’re there at least three shows out of the week,” Mr. Maynard says. “They’re great fans. They really love us. They call themselves the Altar-Holics.”



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