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Heavenly musical satire rises again, should, verily, convert the unbelievers

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/2/2012 (2957 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A scene from the Prairie Theatre Exchange production Altar Boyz with (from left) Jeremy Walmsley, Joseph Sevillo, Michael Lyons, Marc Devigne and Simon Miron.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A scene from the Prairie Theatre Exchange production Altar Boyz with (from left) Jeremy Walmsley, Joseph Sevillo, Michael Lyons, Marc Devigne and Simon Miron.

IT’S the second coming of the holy homeboys.

In 2009, Altar Boyz, an off-Broadway sendup of boy bands and Christian pop, had a local fringe festival production that was such a hit, multitudes flocked to see it. And lo, many were turned away.

The boys of Altar Boyz

RODNEY BRAUN

The boys of Altar Boyz

And it came to pass that the Winnipeg Studio Theatre production was the biggest draw of the entire festival.

Now, verily, the show will be born again tonight on the professional Prairie Theatre Exchange mainstage.

That’s such an impressive feat for a fringe production, it almost belongs in The Miracle Song, an Altar Boyz rap number with irreverent rhymes such as, "JC feelin’ sorry ’cause he knew that leprosy is/ a wack disease that makes a homey go to pieces."

The musical spoof with score and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker and book by Kevin Del Aguila had a successful off-Broadway run from 2005 to 2010. It takes the form of a concert packed with saintly swagger — the final show of the fictitious group’s Raise the Praise tour — and runs 85 minutes with no intermission.

Its lyrics include the chastity-promoting "Girl, you make me wanna wait" and the soul-connecting "Jesus called me on my cellphone" (recently updated to reflect the saviour’s Twitter account).

Bob Metcalfe, artistic director of PTE, describes the show as a tonic for the mid-winter blahs. "It’s just a huge amount of fun," he says.

From left: Joseph Sevillo,  Jeremy Walmsley, Simon Miron and Michael Lyons in Altar Boyz.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

From left: Joseph Sevillo, Jeremy Walmsley, Simon Miron and Michael Lyons in Altar Boyz.

Director Kayla Gordon has reassembled the same five actors in their 20s to play the divinely inspired dudes: Matthew, Mark, Luke and Juan, plus Abraham, the Jew who’s needed in the quintet because he writes the lyrics.

As in every boy band, each heartthrob is a distinct type. Matthew (Jeremy Walmsley) is the hottie group leader.

Mark (Joseph Sevillo) is the sensitive one with an in-the-closet crush on Matthew.

Luke (Michael Lyons) is a bad boy who’s been to rehab for "exhaustion."

Juan (Marc Devigne) is a spicy Latino in the Ricky Martin vein. Abraham (Simon Miron) is the "gefilte fish out of water."

Gordon recalls going to see Altar Boyz in New York in about 2006, thinking it might fit Winnipeg Studio Theatre’s mandate to work with young, up-andcoming performers. "I didn’t think I’d like it," she remembers. "I went kind of reluctantly, and just loved it."

The audience’s huge enjoyment completely sold her. The show has interactive elements, including the fact that in the lobby beforehand, audience members are asked to write down sinful secrets that may be exposed during the show’s "confession sessions."

 

In one scripted confession moment, the boyz tell a guy whose girlfriend is pressuring him to surrender his virginity to stay strong, "no matter how Mary Mag-delicious she’s looking."

Gordon and Walmsley, the 22-year-old Neepawa product who plays Matthew, say they’re unaware of any real-life Christian boy bands. But an online search reveals that they do exist, with names such as Plus One and Phat Chance (Phat being an acronym for Praising Him All Times).

Gordon says that in contrast with the current Broadway hit The Book of Mormon, there’s nothing blasphemous in Altar Boyz.

In fact, at the fringe, "We had a couple of nuns here, and they came up to me afterwards and told me they really enjoyed it.

"There are some innuendos, but a 12-year-old could come. It’s all good clean fun. It is a rock concert, but the music is so charming.... Even people that don’t like boy bands have told me they liked it."

The show’s satire is tasteful and clever, Walmsley says. "I had a bunch of friends that were religious, and they came and they loved it. The writers push it just enough."

With a mainstage budget, everything has been upgraded from the fringe version. The live band has grown from three members to four, allowing for more accurate musical parody of ’90s vocal quintets the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync.

A key element of the enhanced set is the slicker Soul Sensor, a machine that constantly monitors the precise number of unsaved souls in the audience. The Altar Boyz are striving to get the count to zero by concert’s end. If you’re lusting after them, the Soul Sensor may detect your impure thoughts. "It takes the metaphysical temperature of the room," Walmsley says.

Musical director Joseph Tritt and choreographers Brenda Gorlick and Sophia Constantini have worked to make the vocal blend tighter and the urban dance moves sharper.

Walmsley, a high tenor who often croons the top notes in the five-part harmony, says the show is more like a real concert now. "Instead of the musicaltheatre feel, it feels way more like you’re a member of a boy band."

Playing Matthew in the 2009 production at age 19 was a breakthrough for Walmsley, the youngest cast member. He has gone on to star in Winnipeg Studio Theatre’s Spring Awakening, recently played an egotistical jock on TV’s Todd and the Book of Pure Evil, and will soon play a closeted gay Mormon in Angels in America for Winnipeg Jewish Theatre.

The singer-actor watched videos of boy bands to prepare for his Altar Boyz role. Which band does he consider the best?

"Straight up, ’N Sync," he says. "I really like Justin Timberlake. Vocally, I kind of studied him."

Boy bands are often ridiculed because of their teenybopper fanbase.

But Walmsley says the groups deserve respect for doing strenuous, intricate choreography while singing full out.

"It’s insane to sing really high, running around. It’s all about muscle memory and controlling your breathing.

That’s been the biggest challenge as a performer."

Fans can look for Winnipeg Studio Theatre on the PTE stage again at this year’s fringe. It’s presenting Fresher The Musical, a British show about firstyear university students that was a hot ticket at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

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