Elevating cliches to entertainment is the Cincinnati Playhouse's M.O. this fall. It started in September with Dracula, a familiar tale that was squeezed to extract every ounce of camp humor. It continues with the current production, Altar Boyz, taking the entertainment phenomenon of "boy bands" (typically three to five young singers with distinct personalities who specialize in vocal harmony, tight choreography and cute hair) and pushing it to an amusing extreme.
The theme will reach its apex with the upcoming production of The Musical of Musicals: The Musical, which parodies a set of well-known musical theater composers and conventions.
The Playhouse's Altar Boyz is Broadway-worthy. That only makes sense: Director Stafford Arima staged the original Altar Boyz in New York. (He also directed the Playhouse's Ace last season.) He knows his way around this material.
Of course, since his original Altar Boyz is still on Broadway, this one won't follow the path of the Playhouse's Tony Award-winner, Company. But if you want to see the kind of slick, upbeat entertainment fare that pulls in Broadway audiences these days, you should drive straight to Eden Park.
Altar Boyz pokes gentle, good-natured fun at conservative Christianity — with special attention paid to Catholicism. Michael Kadin Craig, Shua Potter, Adam Fleming, Mauricio Perez and Ravi Roth play (respectively) Matthew, Mark, Luke and Juan, plus "the Jewish one," Abraham. They're talented individual performers: Craig is the hunky leader, Potter is "sensitive" (i.e., gay), Fleming is the bad boy, Perez is the Latin lover and Roth is a brainy geek.
Each one has his moment to solo. Craig's "Something About You" is a funny number about wanting a girl (it's the moment to bring onstage a female from the audience), and Perez's "La Vida Eternal" is heartbreaking and uplifting in a predictably cheesy way. Potter's "Epiphany" is a highlight. (I won't spoil what he realizes about himself, but it's not what you might expect.)
As good as each performer is individually, it's as a tightly-knit ensemble that they truly shine. The show's opener, "We Are The Altar Boyz," and the emotional finale, "I Believe," demonstrate their moves and their ability to sing tight harmony. "Rhythm in Me" is a showcase of dance moves, and "Everybody Fits" (complete with Sherry Lewis-styled "Lamb Chop" sock puppets) is a comic highlight in a funny show.
Altar Boyz parodies the environment familiar to anyone who's taken a preteen to a boy band's show. There's lots of stage smoke, dramatic lighting on scaffolding, a metal grid floor and an announcer who sounds like (and occasionally is, in this production) a very hip Voice of God.
I could have done without the show's silly plot device about counting saved souls down to a recalcitrant few — but it's the foundation for a running joke about corporate sponsorship, since the measurement is done repeatedly by Sony's "DX-12 Soul Sensor."
Arima has made this production all the more fun with local references. (Watch for the choreographic re-creation of Cincinnati's fountain near the beginning and a special cake from Busken Bakery later on.) That's a quick path to the hearts of Cincinnatians, who responded warmly to the 85-minute show on opening night.
I don't mean to sound too negative about Altar Boyz: It's highly entertaining, and audiences will love it. I'd really prefer to see the Playhouse applying its considerable assets to more noteworthy material, but I predict this one will be a local hit. Grade: B+
ALTAR BOYZ, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through Nov. 16. See performance times, buy tickets and find nearby bars and restaurants here.