Blessed With Sexy Synthpop Satire, Altar Boyz Zings

"American consumers are demanding more God in their entertainment every day!" So chirps Matthew, lead singer of an adorably clueless, Bible-based pop quintet called Altar Boyz—also the title of the satiric musical about the group that's been a smash Off-Broadway hit going on five years now. The regional premiere, full of big laughs and joyful noise, is currently running at Oak Lawn's Uptown Players.

Altar Boyz manages ever so slyly to send up two annoying musical genres at once: slickly packaged teenybopper bands like the Backstreet Boys and Jonas Brothers, and syrupy Christian pop music aimed at what churches call "the youth." The five authors of this show zero in on the delicious absurdity of performers who preach the gospel through upbeat ballads and faux-funky hip-hop. "God put the rhythm in me so I could bust a move!" sing the Boyz in the show opener.

Staged as the finale of the Boyz's national "Raise the Praise" tour, the "concert" is kept at a tight, intermission-less 90 minutes. The surprisingly strong score cruises over a range of music styles, from dance beats to beat-boxing to show-stopping anthems. (Uptown's four-person orchestra led by Adam C. Wright sounds great throughout.)

All 12 tunes for Altar Boyz have better melodies and catchier hooks than the real deals, even with such ferociously banal (but funny) lyrics as "Girl, there's something about you that makes me want to wait" and "Jesus called me on my cell phone/No roaming charges were incurred." Composer Gary Adler and lyricist Michael Patrick Walker evoke the silliness of forcing a save-your-soul message into hipster lingo. "We know that God is where it's at," the guys sing, "because we think that he's real phat."

The wide-eyed sincerity of the Altar Boyz themselves—besides Matthew, there's Mark, Luke, Juan and Abraham—is what keeps the material from ever slipping over the line into sacrilege. Being devout isn't part of the joke here. The fictional boy band believes solidly in the power of The Good Book set to a good backbeat.

This show's target for satire is America's cheap celebrity-making machine, with its young idols sold to the public as family-friendly sex objects who practice abstinence in the bedroom (or so we're led to believe) but who indulge freely in smarmy product placement. Here the products are Christianity and Sony, with the latter exploiting the former through a magical device that detects unsaved souls. There's one hanging over the stage, and the boys won't quit till the total drops to "0."

Directed by Cheryl Denson, the Uptown Altar Boyz, all swoonily handsome and talented enough to be real boy-banders, keep it remarkably real as they portray small-town Ohio kids who got rich ("we wear bling for the king") by the grace of God and Christian radio. Their harmonies are angelic, and they dance like the devil in sweaty, nonstop choreography by John de Los Santos that cleverly works in references to Beyoncé's "Single Ladies," Michael Jackson's "Thriller," the volcano number in Showgirls and a certain talent contest on The Brady Bunch.

There's something for everyone—including Uptown's predominantly gay male audience—in the makeup of the group. Like many a manufactured act, these guys look as if they've been assembled for maximum demographic diversity and squeal appeal. Front and center as Matthew is Alex Ross, Timberlake-tall, impossibly good-looking and showing off bulging biceps in a sleeveless black T. Brian Daniels plays Luke, the troubled one with a tough-guy dip in his swagger. He gets twitchy when they mention his recent bouts of "exhaustion." As Juan, Angel Velasco sings like an Iglesias and wiggles his backside like Ricky Martin on his character's solo, "La Vida Eternal," one of the show's best melodies. Michael Tuck has the least showy role as Abraham, the token Jew, but he knows how to work that multicolored yarmulke. As the fey Mark, impish Drew Kelly gives the most comically daffy performance, cocking his hips and snapping his neck against the popped collar of his purple polo. As boy bands go, he'd probably be the tweeners' favorite crush object, but oh, how bitchily Mark glares when Matthew sings to pretty girls in the crowd.

As it turns out, all the boys in the band have a secret. Their revelations, spilling out at the end of the show, could spell the demise of their partnership.

That's about all there is in the way of plot. Altar Boyz takes time to deliver a sweet message about self-acceptance and universal love. But that's only for a moment before a final costume change that puts the five hot guys in white pants so tight you could tell their religions. If we didn't already know, that is.

Music and the Bible also figure heavily in the latest production by African American Repertory Theater. But this is serious stuff. August Wilson's sixth drama in his Century Cycle, Seven Guitars, begins and ends with the funeral of a blues guitarist who dies on the verge of possible stardom.

In the nearly three hours between the first and last scenes, seven friends share the best and worst moments of their lives in the backyard of a Pittsburgh tenement in 1948. The central character is Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Vince McGill), a gifted young guitar man whose only hit record has earned him exactly nothing. After a 90-day stretch in jail on a trumped-up charge of "worthlessness," Floyd returns to the woman he loves, the loyal and plainspoken Vera (Regina Washington).

Floyd's sidemen, drummer Red (Christopher Piper) and harmonica player Canewell (Elliot Gilbert II), come and go, always dressed to the nines and broke as a joke. They spin fantasies of getting the trio back together. Floyd has a letter from Chicago promising a recording contract if he can just get there. But the instruments are in perpetual hock and nobody can come up with the small ransom that would spring them from the pawn shop.

The other three "guitars" in this play are a sassy, timeworn neighbor, Louise (Eleanor Threatt), who let her husband walk out but kept his handgun; Hedley (Alonzo Waller), the 59-year-old basement dweller who might be dying of TB; and Ruby (Shundra Grubb), Louise's sexpot niece who comes up from Down South to escape man trouble.

Director William (Bill) Earl Ray has a fine cast that works off one another with the ease and intimacy this big, complex play needs. There are moments of real brilliance, particularly between McGill and Washington, and in the scenes of casual small talk among the men when they suddenly burst into three-part harmony and among the women as they chat about how to cook turnip greens and how to handle the men. "Floyd's the kind of man who can do the right thing for a little while," Louise observes. "Then that little while run out."

Wilson liked his stock characters—the village elder, the goodhearted woman, the floozy, the tragic hero chasing an empty dream—and they're all in Seven Guitars. In its small theater in DeSoto, AART has honed the art of ensemble acting.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner