Take five small-town boys who love to sing together, give them some undeniably catchy tunes and swoon-worthy dance moves and put them onstage. What do you get? If you said a band like Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, ’N Sync or any of the other numerous boy bands that were a ubiquitous presence on radio stations and bedroom walls in the late 1990s and early 2000s, you would be close.
In the 11th Hour Theatre Company’s production of Altar Boyz, currently playing at the Arts Bank in Center City, the five members of the titular group differ in one major respect from the above-mentioned bands: They only perform Christian-themed songs on their “Raise the Praise” tour featuring their greatest hits.
This musical sendup of the music industry, organized religion and everything in between hit the right chords from its first raised curtain, winning the 2005 Outer Critics Circle award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical. The show ultimately ran in New York for five years and more than 2,000 performances, and is a current favorite on the national tour circuit.
Altar Boyz has been performed across the United States, but this is the first time one of Philadelphia’s theater companies has brought the musical exploits of Luke (the tough one), Juan (the ethnic one), Mark (the sensitive one), Matthew (the cute one) and Abraham (the Jewish one) to a local stage.
Yes, there is a kipah-covered character in the group that sings songs like “Girl You Make Me Wanna Wait,” “La Vida Eternal” and “Jesus Called Me on My Cell Phone.”
In fact, it is Abraham, played by University of the Arts graduate Michael Linden, who saves the band from obsolescence. When the original four bandmates can’t come up with new songs, Luke asks Abraham to write their songs for them, making this an ecumenical spoof.
Linden, 26, comes from the Long Island Jewish enclave of Roslyn Heights, where he went to Hebrew high school and still returns for family holidays. Ironically, this isn’t the first time he’s been involved in a show with Christian themes.
“When I was doing shows in high school, we did a lot of them at a church in Queens, including Godspell, where I was Jesus,” he recalls with a laugh.
So how did Linden prepare for a role that involves singing and dancing a la New Kids on the Block while the show’s “Soul Sensor” keeps a running tally of how many people in the audience are being saved during the band’s performance?
“Before the show even started,” he says, “we would post different videos on Facebook — all of the boy bands took inspiration from Janet Jackson and Prince!”
He adds that even though the group’s very name denotes a Catholic affiliation, the show gently skewers that faith as well as others, an equal-opportunity offender in its quest to keep viewers tapping their toes while they laugh in recognition of their religion’s foibles.
“Even though the show is super-energetic and could err on the side of cheesy intentionally” — song lyrics like “God put the rhythm in me so I could bust a move” and “Jesus called me on my cell phone, no roaming charges were incurred” come to mind — “the show really has heart and a meaningful message. It reinforces the idea that all religions have the common theme of the golden rule.”
Too bad organized religions can’t impart that lesson with such a great beat and choreography.
IF YOU GO
Now through June 1
at 11th Hour Theatre Company
The Arts Bank, Broad and South streets, Philadelphia