Review: Christian boy-band spoof gets funky for the Lord in Walnut Creek


By Sam Hurwitt, Correspondent

Posted: 05/31/2017, 2:37pm

“Altar Boyz,” the musical closing Center REPertory Company’s season at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts, comes out of such a specific cultural moment that today, only 13 years after its debut, it comes off as a period piece. The 2004 hit off-Broadway musical parodies the boy band pop craze of the 1990s with groups like the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync. The preshow music plays a sampling of those bands in case anyone needs a refresher course.

Written by Kevin Del Aguila, the show takes the form of a concert of a super Christian boy band called the Altar Boyz. Their peppy songs (by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker) have lyrics like “Girl, You Make Me Wanna Wait” and “Jesus Called Me on My Cell Phone.

The Center REP production is hardly the Boyz’ first visit. SHN brought a touring production to San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre in 2007. Concord’s late Willows Theatre Company first produced it in the East Bay in 2008, and other groups have done it here and there ever since.

Directed and choreographed by Keith Pinto, this new production revels in 1990s excess. The dance moves are entertainingly over the top in their cheesiness. Victoria Livingston-Hall’s costumes for the group are hilarious fashion disasters, all-white mishmashes of ripped pants and athletic gear, a mesh shirt here, a pleather jacket there, all bedecked with silvery studs and flair. The four-piece backing band led by music director Ben Prince is dressed in similarly ludicrous white tracksuits.

Kate Boyd’s white and blue set consists of a semicircular platform surrounding the band and several diagonal pillars vaguely suggesting a pyramid, with flashing, multicolored concert lighting by Kurt Landisman.

Naturally enough, most of the guys have the names of the authors of the gospels. Sean Okuniewicz is boyish-voiced and square as Matthew, the ostensible leader of the group. The single-named Tyce is hilariously dramatic as Mark, who clearly has a crush on Matthew but isn’t ready to say it. Justin Sabino’s Luke is amusingly dim, going off cluelessly on literal-minded tangents, and Josh Ditto is full of infectious cheer as the thickly accented Juan. William Hoshida is an earnest bundle of wannabe-cool mannerisms and dated slang (such as adding “-izzle” to words) as Abraham, a Jewish guy who somehow wound up in a Catholic-themed band — and, in fact, writing the lyrics (fictionally, at least).

There isn’t a plot as such, but there’s a narrative thread involving an electronic device that purportedly monitors how many souls in the room are burdened with sin. The group’s goal is to get that number to zero by singing goofy pop songs about Jesus. Along the way they tell the story of how they got together, which is amusingly patched together from each member’s conflicting accounts, like the gospels of their namesakes.

It’s an awfully entertaining show, with comically awkward lyrics rife with supposedly accidental double entendres. One of the best gags is the collective gasp when Abraham says the group has evolved. Sure, it’s slightly funnier if you remember the boy bands it’s spoofing. In any case, as a tongue-in-cheek pop extravaganza it may not save any souls but it sure does lift one’s spirits.

Altar Boyz is energetic, upbeat, nonstop hip hop entertainment


By Vince Mediaa

Posted: June 1, 2017


The boy crush hit ALTAR BOYZ opens the summer theater season with a nonstop pop high energy show at Center REP. Now on stage at the Margaret Lesher stage in Walnut Creek through July 1st. The Boyz are in town and they bring “the Lord” center stage in this vibrant spoof of their final concert from five talented Roman Catholic altar boys. There's certainly no lack of infectious energy in this upbeat production of the award-winning 2004 musical with a book by Kevin Del Aguila and music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker. Five is a lucky number for striking gold in harmony that has worked for boy bands including ’N Sync, One Direction and Backstreet Boys. Director and choreographer Ken Pinto has scored five keen young men to play the Boyz, who are all top-notch performers: Josh Ditto, William Hoshida, Sean Okuniewicz, Justin Sabino and Tyce. The superb music director Ben Prince and his on stage band keep this 90 minute upbeat funky score for the Lord a gem.

We join the Altar Boyz on the last night of their "Raise the Praise" national tour of church halls and community centers. With the aid of a digital "Soul Sensor DX-12" machine, the Boyz' goal each night is to save every troubled soul in the auditorium and the Walnut Creek sold out opening night goal was 297.

The group opens with “We Are The Altar Boyz” and this lively number sets the tone for the show. The Boyz are Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan (a Tijuana orphan with a thick Spanish accent) and Abraham (who's Jewish). The Boyz have been called by God to spread the "good news." In fact, they were literally called. "Jesus called me on my cell phone," one after another the Boyz confess in the musical number, "The Calling." In a song thanking Jesus for their talents, the quintet rhyme to the son of God to "put it in me." "It" being rhythm, and the almost dozen songs are non stop.

As Matthew, the quintet’s' founder and praise leader, the accomplished Sean Okuniewicz is charismatic, endearing and earnest, as well as amusingly oblivious to Mark's not-too-secret crush. Local favorite Justin Sabino is convincingly terrific as as the break-dancing Luke, the band's not-too-bright van driver, fresh from rehab for a bout with "exhaustion." Each boy shines in their solo numbers and Sabino is a show stopper in “Body Mind & Soul” bringing Pinto’s synchronized choreography front and center. The direction and pace he keeps the Boyz at is awesome and his hip hop dance is the pure highlight of this performance. All the five are exceptional dancers and hip hop experts. Victoria Livingston-Hall’s costumes are almost Jesus camp that keep the guys all in white silver and grey tones not to disrespect their lord. Cliff Caruthers’ sound design includes hand and stand mics for some of the songs but each of the boys sparkle and send their pitch perfect voices to every seat at the Margaret Lesher Theatre.

The tall sparkling Tyce is the sensitive, somewhat queen, Mark the group's choreographer, who brings the swagger and funny to his role with the other Boyz "I am a Catholic, and it’s not a choice." A sweet emotional William Hoshida hits some impressive high notes as the group's lyricist, Abraham. And as Juan, the delightful Josh Ditto has fun with his character's accent, innocence and "origins" story as we hear their stories and the secrets that each one is hiding from the others. Their harmonies are gorgeous, their stage presence is intoxicating, their dancing is joyful and not self-conscious, and their rapport is genuine. The guys complement each other perfectly and blend their singular skills to form the ensemble boy band collective needed for this production.

Pinto’s show stopping dance is sizzling and really brings this show it's excellent fun and energy. Pinto brings the ALTAR BOYZ out to convert us to an higher lifestyle in the theater: having pure and sinless fun, in our closets or out. There’s dazzling rock-concert lighting by the award winning Kurt Landisman who drops some splendid light effects that bring the show its best moments highlighting the guys inner truths. Kate Boyd’s silver and blue set makes perfect use on concert platforms and of course resembles a church, keeping Prince’s bright pop band on stage that include Eryn Allen, Lane Sanders and Stephen Sanska. Bay Area favorite Anthony Rollins-Mullens fills in as the voice of G.O.D. (Mullens is currently in “Smokey Joe's” at Broadway by The Bay.)

Pinto and his creative team have done a terrific job with this spoof of Christian tunes. As many musicals built on parody, this one-act production could easily lapse into a one-trick gimmick that feels 80 minutes too long. Its saving grace is a clever script and moving music, which renders the playful harmless to those who do not believe. It adds humor and poignancy in just the right places and when needed most. I didn’t want to like a musical all based on Christian songs, but these Boyz made me a believer. What sets “Altar Boyz” apart is an endearing sincerity even when its aim is the big laugh and a charismatic group of guys going at full tilt to lift your spirits. ALTAR BOYZ is definitely worth catching during its summer run at the Center Rep Company and the perfect show to close out their 49th impressive season of exceptional professional theatre. Their 50th season opens this fall with another boy band of sorts MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET and includes SHIRLEY VALENTINE. Some seats remain for ALTAR BOYZ, no need to bring a bible, just come ready to giggle and rock.

It's All About the Songs as Center REP Closes out its Current Season with Altar Boyz

By Jan Miller

Posted: June 3, 2017

The “Altar Boyz” croon, flirt, glide and even hip hop in perfect synchronization and harmony in Center REPertory Company’s season finale at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts (1601 Civic Drive), in downtown Walnut Creek, CA., currently playing through Saturday, July 1. Oh yes, and they also praise the Lord! Yes, the "Altar Boyz," is a satirical show about a Christian pop group made up of five potential teen idol cover boys.

These five talented, sweet-voiced, swivel-hipped believers in "Altar Boyz" offer an upbeat performance that is certain to send audiences home with a smile.

Ironically, devout Christians are not really the prime target audience here, that is, unless they share the view that there is something absurd about proselytizing for religion through pop music. True fans of Christian rock and pop could reasonably take offense at the sly parodies cooked up by the skilled songwriters Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, with winking choruses like, "Girl, you make me want to wait."

But the material is delivered with such a light touch. The songs' tongue-in-cheek lyrics are sung with a sincerity that softens the sting. The crush-worthy guys in "Altar Boyz" (note the biblical names) are a culturally assorted group designed to cater to the widest possible demographic.

Luke (Justin Sabino) is the tough one, the hip-hoppin' homeboy, with his baseball cap fixed precisely askew, arms doing the monkey-lope at his sides. Juan (Josh Ditto) is the "ethnic" one who leads the driving Latin-sound number. Abraham (William Hoshida) is - gosh! - the Jewish one, while the supermodel-skinny Mark (Tyce) is the sensitive one.

Mark is so sensitive, in fact, that he can't keep his gleaming eyes from fixing on the group's fifth member, Matthew (Sean Okuniewicz), who happens to be the group’s lead singer.

“Altar Boyz,” conceived by Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport and directed and choreographed by Keith Pinto, is staged as a concert. The audience members are cast as fans in attendance for this harmonizing quintet, bent on bringing everyone into the light of true belief.

Kevin Del Aguila's throwaway book makes use of a contrived device that gives the show a narrative pulse: a magical machine at the corner of the stage that registers the number of still-unsaved souls in the audience. The Altar Boyz won't quit until it's down to zero.

Still, it’s the songs that are the show's real substance. Roughly a dozen numbers lend variety to several Top 40 musical styles. What it all comes down to is their wholesome message: "We know that God is where it's at," they sing in "Rhythm in Me," "because we think he's real phat."

In one ballad they meditate on the duties of the blessed: "Jesus called me on my cellphone/No roaming charges were incurred/He told me that I should go out in the world/And spread his glorious word."

Each of the Altar Boyz has a terrific voice and each gets a moment to linger in the solo spotlight. But it's Tyce who really gets the audience going with a rather aggressive peppiness – sort of like an overgrown, daffy, yet endearing Mouseketeer.

Costume Designer Victoria Livingston-Hall is spot on with a set of all-white fashion outfits, each different, and decked with silver studs and individual flair. They rock!

“Altar Boyz” is a really entertaining production, with great music sprinkled with comically awkward moments.

Altar Boyz sparkles with comedy at Center REP, Walnut Creek

God Demands a Boy Band, Hilarity Ensues

By Rose Del Duca

Posted: June 2, 2017

Let me give you the backstory of the 2004 award-winning musical “Altar Boyz”: a Christian boy band is performing its last concert on a national tour. Matt, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham blast onto the stage in true boy band fashion, sporting gleaming white costumes emblazoned with silver sparkles. The Boyz dance tightly choreographed moves, and belt their theme song, proclaiming: “We are the Altar Boyz, and we’ll alter your mind!”

While there are no mind-altering revelations in this whirlwind satirical musical, the fantastic romp will have you giggling in your seat like a Catholic fan-girl tipsy on stolen Communion wine. Once the singer/actors find their rhythm (the first number felt more like a warm-up), they perform like a well-oiled machine. Quickly, each of the five Apostles emerge as full-blown characters.

Named after the Apostle Matthew, Matt (Sean Okuniewicz), a natural leader, has a strong singing voice. He evokes Nick Carter of the “Backstreet Boys” with his perfected cross between a nasal whine and a clear croon.

Another of Jesus’ Apostles, Mark (played by the vibrant Tyce) acts as the band’s cheerleader, and he has a secret ‘crush’ on Matt. Tyce works his voice like an acrobat, jumping octaves, flipping genres and leaping into vocal embellishments with the spirit of a skydiver. Combined with his talent for physical comedy, he is a riot to watch.

Then there’s Apostle Juan (Josh Ditto), who was abandoned at a church as a baby. He’s a scatterbrained, sweet, ladies man, who makes break dancing look easy. Juan admits his Spanish accent is put on. And he occasionally needs to be steered away from sexual innuendos–directed at the audience.

Apostle Number Four, Luke (Justin Sabino) suffers from “exhaustion” (a drinking problem). Temperamental Luke threatens bodily harm if you cross him.

Finally, the new guy, Abraham (William Hoshida), still Jewish, is embraced by the rest because he writes heavenly lyrics, like “Girl, you make me want to wait. At least until our wedding date. So till then, I’ll master… (long pause here, with Matt on bended knee, staring up at a girl he just dragged onstage)…. My own faith.” This could be the funniest moment of “Altar Boyz.”

For a musical in “real time,” the last concert of their tour, the Boyz are also on a mission—to save every burdened soul in the audience. They tackle the task with the help of a machine called the “Soul Sensor DX-12.” At the beginning of the concert, nearly 300 souls are in need of help. By the end, even after pulling out an emergency song and battling terrifying invisible demons, the Boyz are still “saving souls.”

There are surprises, and these boys find some heavy souls lurking. We see the genesis of the Altar Boyz from the perspective and the past of each quirky Apostle. A bolt of lightning and the voice of God commands the Boyz to write songs that praise Him—but work in the shower or on the road, too.

They must “bind their loins in pleather” and spread His word. After a long buildup, Mark finally seems ready to admit being gay: “I just want to say— I’m—” he gazes out into the audience, shifts his weight, draws a deep breath, and then sternly sings “a Christian!”

The songs are backed by a wonderful live band that doesn’t miss one beat. These folks are in the background on stage, but they deserve a lot of credit. And so do the book writer, lyricist, directors and choreographer. In this particular production, the Boyz easily slide from ballad to pop to rap—even a salsa, varying their choreography to match each genre. The energy is high from start to finish, working up to sweat pouring off the actors in the final numbers.

“They must be exhausted,” a woman in front of me confided in her friend, as we left the theater. No doubt, after such an all-in performance. We come away a little exhausted too, because “Altar Boyz” keeps you from blinking, should you miss an antic, a sweet dance move, or a joke embedded in the lyrics or dialogue.

“Altar Boyz” at Center Rep feels like a 90 minute high-speed train trip, super-charged! “Altar Boyz” provides a night of fun the whole family can enjoy, no matter your spiritual beliefs—so long as you pack your sense of humor.

God is in the House


By Victor Cordell

Posted: June 2, 2017

Capitalizing on the market segment for contemporary Christian music, playwright Kevin Del Aguila and composers and lyricists Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker developed “Altar Boyz,” a musical-comedy spoof of a touring Christian rock boy band. The work ran for over 2,000 off-Broadway performances, so it clearly reaches a significant theatrical market. Center Rep has fashioned a well-produced, high-energy version that the predisposed will find highly entertaining. It is a crowd pleaser. As a caution, those who are looking for sophistication or nuance or who don’t warm to the religious motif may not find this to their taste.

The opening conceit is that the performance is billed as the group’s last one. The boys sing and dance and tell funny self-referential stories. The other conceit that makes their performances unique is that they have an electronic device called a Soul Sensor that measures how many souls in the theater need saving. Predictably, the first reading yields a number that approximates the number of people in the house. On subsequent readings, triggered by various cast interventions intended to bring souls closer to God, the number gyrates to create some tension as to whether we will all be saved.

The boy band could aptly be named the Gospel Writers. Those familiar with the New Testament will recognize the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – uh, make that Juan. The characterizations of the boys are quite distinct, but to add to religious diversity (really, because he supposedly writes great lyrics), Abraham, a Jew, was enlisted into the group.

For those who fear that “Altar Boyz” might be insidious, unctuous Christian propaganda brought to our local stage, consider some of the satirical and subversive lyrics in the songs like “Jesus called me on my cell phone” or “When I hold you tight…it makes my Levi’s tight.” In a forlorn, sexually charged love song, Matthew pines for intimacy with his girl, wailing “Girl you make me want to wait…but until then, I’ll master….my own faith.” And the flamboyant Mark warbles of suffering rejection, and just when you expect him to sing “because I am gay” he blurts out “I am Catholic.” Along with the often revealing and funny lyrics, the music score is very listenable in the soft rock/pop vein.

Director Keith Pinto organizes a fitting, clean, and monochromatic look to the staging, mimicking a Cathedral of Light theme. Costumes in white with silver match the stage and conform with the look of religiosity.

The boys, Josh Ditto, William Hoshida, Sean Okuniewicz, Justin Sabino, and Tyce are talented, and their charming personalities come through. In addition to ensemble harmonies, each has opportunities to show his solo singing chops. Pinto also choreographs movement, which includes nods to ancient dances such as the robot, break dancing, and moon dancing.

When a theatrical piece goes for wall-to-wall laughs, it’s hard to find an underlying moral or believe that one was intended. But the expressed sentiment in the play that perhaps captures the underlying message is “There is no star that is as bright as its constellation.” GO WARRIORS! .

“Altar Boyz” with book by Kevin Del Aguila and music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker is produced by Center Rep and plays at the Lesher Center, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek through July 1, 2017.

By Charles Jarrett

Posted: June 7, 2017

“Altar Boyz” at the Lesher Center offers comedy and upbeat music, delivered by high-energy young male pop music entertainers. This off-Broadway musical hit has a markedly religious slant. With a little tongue-in-cheek, the music of Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker and book by Marc J. Kessler and Kevin Davenport is a joyous take-off on pop music groups, providing music that has great appeal with younger religious congregations across this country.

“Altar Boyz” brings to our attention the five young entertainers of this group who deliver what appears to be their final concert of their “Raise the Praise” Christian rock musical tour to members of their “congregation.” The songs written for this show exemplify the religious overtone of this upbeat musical event. Songs like “God Put the Rhythm in Me” and songs that encourage its members to “Wear a Little Bling for the King,” “Got to Get the Hell Out” and “I Believe in You” are delightfully fun and a kick to listen to.

The five young men, Matthew (Sean Okuniewicz), Mark (Tyce), Luke (Justin Sabino), Juan (Josh Ditto) and Abraham (William Hoshida) are engaging. They tell their stories as to how they came “unto God” and “how Jesus called me on my cell phone” or how “Jesus added me on Facebook,” which helped to draw them more into their faith.

They even introduce the audience to their exclusive “Soul Sensor” machine, which identifies numerically how many sinners there were in the audience. As the evening of spiritual music and inspiration continues, they turn on the machine several times to find out if their inspiration had assisted in converting audience members away from their “wicked ways and thoughts.”

Without question, this show is an absolutely fun evening of lightly comic storytelling and really well-written music.