Professional obligations mean I now have seen the satirical, concert-style, boy-band musical "Altar Boyz" three times. I recommend no more than once, but I do recommend that once.
To spend too much time parsing the relative merits of the different young men playing Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and Abraham is to go deeper into musical-theater minutiae than this enjoyable but wafer-thin entertainment really merits, even though the cultists and viral marketers who push "Altar Boyz" on every blog known to God certainly seem up to that task.
Suffice to say that the new commercial production that opened Sunday night at the Drury Lane Water Tower Place is a very close replication of the national touring version seen at the LaSalle Bank Theatre in 2006. And for people looking for a light, frothy and slick night out, it delivers with copious amounts of charm.
This is a further incarnation of the original Off-Broadway hit -- still playing in New York. Although mostly cast with locally based performers, this Chicago version was zestfully staged by the original director, Stafford Arima, the original choreographer, Christopher Gattelli, and, well, you get the idea. This is a good thing. They have this show down.
They know that it's only funny if the gentlemen playing this spoof Christian quintet (with one enthusiastic Jewish ringer) can sing and dance at least as well as the real things. They know it only works when the actors treat their earnest characters seriously. They know it only works if the show doesn't come off as mean and condescending. All of those commandments are in place.
For the record, I especially liked Brian Crum, the former "Wicked" cast member who now plays the maybe gay, surely Catholic member of the merry little band. Crum's Mark has the best song of the night -- the confessional ballad "I Am a Catholic" -- and this funny, sweet-voiced actor knocks it out of the park. But then the rest of the quintet -- Devin DeSantis, Nick Verina (recently in "Forbidden Broadway" here), Tyler McGee and Adam Zelasko -- are all good too. I'd say this is the best of the three casts I've seen.
Better yet, the show sits nicely in the Drury Lane. "Altar Boyz" was too intimate for big touring houses. But this smaller, wrap-around venue allows the Boyz to generate a lot more fun with their fans (even in the cheaper seats, you'll feel part of the action). And to their credit, the producers didn't skimp on the tech -- you get a peppy live band and lots of cheesy spots, chaser lights and smoke.
"Altar Boyz" has become such a popular hit because it hits just the precise balance between PG-13 satire and warm-hearted entertainment. Despite the seemingly corny setup -- the perky Boyz use a digital counter to check on the number of souls they've saved -- this is a show that plays better than you'd expect. I first saw it in Detroit with a grumpy, gray-haired crowd who had bought subscription tickets to a canceled classic musical and been stuck with "Altar Boyz" instead. By the end of the night, the piece had totally won the initially hostile crowd over, and I've respected it ever since.
Despite the dizzying array of competing entertainments on offer this fall, I suspect "Altar Boyz" will do well at Water Tower. Just 90 fast-moving minutes in the company of an attractive male cast, this will be irreverent enough to please shoppers out to let loose a little on the Magnificent Mile and affectionate enough to ensure no one cancels church.
Where: Drury Lane Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St.
When: Through Nov. 25
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $45-55 at 312-642-2000
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