Review: ‘Altar Boyz,’ altered sound

 In 11th Hour Theatre Company’s production of

In 11th Hour Theatre Company’s production of "Altar Boyz," from left: Adam Hoyak, Billy Kametz, Robert Hager, Michael Linden, Nicholas Park. (Photo courtesy of John Flak)

Allow me, please, to be the heretic in the sanctuary. The many fans of 11th Hour Theatre Company will see its “Altar Boyz” production over the next few weeks, and they’ll think the show is great fun, especially if they’ve never seen the irreverent musical. I’ve seen it before. And for me, it was just close to fun.

 

The five terrifically talented young guys who sing their hearts out and dance as if their feet are on fire (and their arms, necks, hips and other movable parts) are surely the best performers among the four productions I’ve seen. But they are overwhelmed by lousy sound. So is the show. By my estimation – made, admittedly, in the heat of maddening frustration — the audience lost about 35 percent of the lyrics on opening night. That’s a real shame, when you consider that the score by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker is at times super clever.

The audience on Monday didn’t seem to care – the house was even more papered with supporters of the stage company and pals of the cast than on a normally bloated opening night. You would have thought the Altar Boyz were the Second Coming. The problem, though, is that they never really arrived.

Their sung-lines sometimes got lost under the weight of the otherwise excellent four-musician band led by musical director Jamison Foreman. Other times, lyrics just faded to oblivion in Mark Valenzeula’s sound design, which gives the show the slight-echo sound of a big rock concert, or maybe the far-off feel of the heavens to which these Altar Boyz aspire. It’s hard to imagine that this passed by the generally keen director Megan Nicole O’Brien, a co-founder of 11th Hour. But I’ve come to believe that directors are untrustworthy when sound problems are an issue – they, unlike us, know all the words. Of course they can make them out.

So that’s my heresy, laid out among the people who will be smitten by these Altar Boyz, and for whom 65 percent of the show will be enough. The musical, written in 2004 and updated a bit to include Twitter references but not quite enough to get rid of stuff like yesterday’s “true-that!,” sits mostly to the cute side of blasphemy – even Cardinal Rigali might like it, but I don’t want to be the one to take him there. It played for five years Off-Broadway beginning in 2005, and has been a big hit in regional theater productions.

That’s because the score, as well as Kevin Del Aguila’s script, teeters tantalizingly between being light-hearted and offensive, much more so than any of the “Nunsense” frolics. “Altar Boyz” also has a nice double-edge on its cutter: it makes fun of boy bands as much as it skewers religion. In its more peaceful moments, the show’s little encomiums are unabashedly endearing.

These Altar Boyz began writing songs for church, and have come a long way — this is the final concert, we’re told, of their “Raise the Praise” tour. They are Matthew, the boys’ leader, played here by Adam Hoyak, with a commanding voice and a glimmering smile; Mark, a gay altar boy, played with a swish by Nicholas Park; Luke, the street-smart tough guy, portrayed by Billy Kametz; Juan, a Latino orphan, a shining performance by Robert Hager; and Abraham, the token Jew among them, performed by Michael Linden. They tear up the stage in Samuel Antonio Reyes’ hip street choreography which, for them, must double as a nightly workout.

_

“Altar Boyz,” produced by 11th Hour Theatre Company, runs through June 1 at The Arts Bank, Broad and South Streets. 267-987-9865 or www.11thhourtheatrecompany.org.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.