Beck Has Its Way With Altar Boyz

Evangelism Rocks 

Beck Has Its Way With Altar Boyz

Cleveland is a city that abounds in strange contradictions. For instance, how come Playhouse Square has totally overlooked Altar Boyz as a candidate to occupy its 14th Street Theatre - when it's potentially the most profitable moneymaking enterprise since Tony kept relentlessly marrying Tina for fun and lucre - and left it up to Beck Center to cash in?

This 2005 off-Broadway musical is making its Northeast Ohio debut at the ever-industrious Lakewood playhouse. When done with the proper flash - as it is here - the show has the charismatic DNA to flourish wherever planted. First and foremost, it's firmly constructed around a central joke that makes it ideal for non-Mensa audiences. The joke plays off the interesting dichotomy of mixing evangelical Christianity with the bubbleheaded egotism of boy rock bands and dexterously balances the contradiction on its nose for 90 goofy minutes in the manner of a whimsical Thurber seal.

With a book by Kevin Del Aguila and music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, the piece's premise centers on the last concert of the titular singing group. The evening's greatest asset is its skillful appropriation of elements from A Chorus Line, Dreamgirls and Jersey Boys. From the first named, we have the dramatized confessions - as with a gay boy agonizing over a childhood terrorized by Episcopalian thugs. From the second, the obvious lyrical pop references ("We're the Altar Boyz/We'll alter your minds"). And from that other Boys, the in-your-face exposition and narrative flashbacks.

The show's creators also use the same brand of genial knowing winks as Forbidden Broadway. Thus, we get a song about finding Jesus on a cell phone, as the audience is encouraged to wave their cell phones in the air. A female audience member is picked to be the symbol of the boys' vows of chastity in a song titled "Girl, You Make Me Want to Wait." And perhaps the best gag - because it goes unexplained - is the inclusion of the yarmulke-wearing Abraham as one of the group. On top of all this, there's a score that manages to take the musical stylings of such outfits as the Pet Shop Boys and Up With People, and make them sound even more ridiculous.

The production breaks a long-standing Beck tradition. No matter how good its work has been in the past, there is usually that proverbial fly-in-the-ointment - papier-m‰ché sets, distorted sound or grievous compromising in the casting. Here, everything coalesces to such perfection that my theater companion inquired if this was in fact a professional touring company. Josh Rhett Noble, John Riddle, Dan Grgic, Ryan Jagru and Connor O'Brien perform Verb Ballet choreographer Hernando Cortez's knowing spoof of disco-fever dance with gleeful effortlessness and - thanks to director Scott Spence's guidance - make every madcap moment fly.

A month's run on the West Side for this prize effort seems much too short and localized. But, Playhouse Square Center (hint, hint), there's always that empty, inviting 14th Street Theatre available.scene@clevescene.com

Altar Boyz: Through August 17 at The Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216.521.2540.

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