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Photograph by Dave Lepori
POSSE ON THE MOVE: Darrin Glesser (from left), Andrew Willis-Woodward, Sean Patrick O'Connor, Manuel Romero and CJ Blankenship star as 'Altar Boyz.'

Boy Band Apart

A Christian posse sings for salvation in 'Altar Boyz' at San Jose Stage Company

By Marianne Messina

IN SAN JOSE Stage Company's musical revue Altar Boyz, a Christian, specifically Catholic, boy band performs its tour's "last stop" at the corner of parody and blasphemy. Right off, these sort-of hip-hop Village People announce their goal: to uplift every soul in the audience with the help of their product-placement gimmick, the Sony Soul Sensor (a digital counter projected on screens to either side of the stage). The five band members, Matthew (CJ Blankenship), Mark (Sean Patrick O'Connor), Luke (Darrin Glesser), Juan (Manuel Romero) and a Jewish member named Abraham (Andrew Willis-Woodward), recount the "genesis" of the band according to each, and their respective stories match their personalities.

This allusion to the Bible's compilation is the show's conceptual high point. Mark's version of things is all about his crush on Matthew. While Juan is sizing up girls in the audience, Mark is competing with them. Luke is a boy-Britney, in and out of rehab and thick as two bricks. Spouting the worst of hip-hop jargon ("Your posse might not think it's dope"), the Boyz' intersong banter drops tabloid tidbits about their lives. A versatile (two keyboardists) live band sitting behind the Boyz beefs up the concert aura with its strong presence. In one continuous act, the show genuflects to a hoard of musical idioms, hand-raising gospel ("Work" replaces "Shout"), screaming R&B (C-A-T-H-O-L-I-C replaces R-E-S-P-E-C-T), barbershop quintet in a jingle introducing the soul meter and salsa with montuno-driven "La Vida Eternal" sung by Juan.

As the show conflates boy bands, hip-hop poseurs, a mercenary music industry and the megachurch phenomenon, it's hard to tell parody from proselytizing (for example, the face-down-the-devil song, "Number 918") or imitation from exaggeration (the over-the-top love-at-first-sight song "Something About You"). Such wandering hues may reflect the fact that songwriters Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker wrote independently (and from differing religious perspectives). So it's perhaps ironic that Altar Boyz examines the idea of shedding the self for the good of the whole. Cast members lay the groundwork for this question by creating vivid individuals. Blankenship's Matthew shows his band leadership skills by way of Popeye biceps and trained dancer's form; O'Connor's Mark, in red pants, white-fringe jacket and doughboy midriff, gives off a lot of take-me-as-I-am; Glesser's acrobatic Luke, in arm bands and cut-off T-shirt, exudes motor head. Romero, as Juan the womanizer, stirred a good bit of genuine, gleeful woman-titter among the audience (and they couldn't all have been Romero's ubiquitous family).

While the show may ruffle a few feathers, depending on how you like your crucifixes (as two mic stands held crosswise, as pocket patches, as a chorus line of boys emulating a hang on the cross), it is never mean-spirited. The songs acknowledge religious debates by humorous allusion, as when gay Mark says, "This is not a choice." Words like "masturbate" and "gay" are suggested through rhyming and elision, never stated outright. Perhaps trying harder to not be something (offensive, pointed) than to be something, the show is nevertheless well executed. And the final Credo ("I Believe") sports an uplifting lyric that in its vagueness can be many things to many people.

 ALTAR BOYZ, a San Jose Stage Company production, plays Wednesday–Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Sept. 21 at The Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $25–$50. (408.283.7142)

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