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Originally conceived by Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport and performed in about 82 minutes, without intermission, last Friday night at Raleigh Little Theatre, Altar Boyz is a nifty new Christian-rock musical by songwriters Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker and scriptwriter Kevin Del Aguilla. Part rock concert, part comedy, part confessional, this prize-winning musical made a most auspicious Off-Broadway debut on March 1, 2005 at New World Stages Stage IV, where it is still running, and won both the 2005 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical and the 2009 Broadway.com Audience Award for Favorite Long-Running Off-Broadway Show.
RLT’s robust rendition of Altar Boyz, with frisky musical staging by director Haskell Fitz-Simons and choreographer Freddie-Lee Heath, is a real crowd-pleaser. Jason Cooper as Matthew, Tyler Betts Rollins as Mark, James Ilsley as Luke, Jonathan Skinner as Juan, and Matt Gromlich as Abraham are fine young talents, who are at their best as they belt out their rousing solos and recreate the group’s heavenly harmonies. This crackerjack quintet also can bust a move or two on the dance floor, but their character-work could be stronger and more charismatic as they quickly sketch each group member’s quirks — mostly during between-song patter.
The musical’s creators give each member of the Altar Boyz one salient character trait: Jason Cooper as Matthew is the self-appointed leader of the band with an oversized ego to match his prodigious singing talent; and Tyler Rollins as Mark is a plus-size pretty boy who sings like an angel — and knows it. James Ilsley plays the group’s scruffy wild child Luke, just back from a stint in rehab; and Jonathan Skinner portrays Juan as a self-styled Latin lothario — but as a chick magnet Juan seems more like Fez’ on “That ’70s Show” than his idol Julio Iglesias. And Matt Gromlich as Abraham, the group’s songwriter, is a nice Jewish boy somehow writing songs for and performing — wearing a yarmulke — in an immensely popular Roman Catholic boy band.
Raleigh Little Theatre’s vivacious version of Altar Boyz gets a big boost from the high-octane accompaniment of musical director Julie A. Florin (subbing for Greg Dixon on keyboards), Brad Gardner (keyboards), Emily Draughon (drums), and especially Marc Davis (guitar). Davis’ scorching guitar solos are a highlight of the show.
Scenic and lighting designer Rick Young’s Las Vegas-style set and lighting, costume designer Vicki Olson’s snappy stage costumes, and the sure-handed mix and balance of sound designer Todd Houseknecht also bring out the best in RLT’s Altar Boyz. This rousing revue, which recreates the final performance of the group’s 2009 “Raise the Praise” tour, is a real humdinger.
Altar Boyz resumes its run on Oct. 8-11, 15-18, and 22-25 in RLT’s Cantey V. Sutton Theatre. See our theatre calendar for details.