Sheri Flanders is an actor, writer and comedian in Chicago. She is head writer for Choice The Musical, half of the comedy duo Flanders and part of the Infinite Sundaes musical house ensemble. Sheri is a contributor for Chicagoland Musical Theater, a faculty member of the Second City music program and co-owner of Flanders Consulting.
Pictured: (l-r) Max DeTogne, Steven Romero Schaeffer, Marco Tzunux, Frankie Leo Bennett, Colin Schreier. Photo by Cody Jolly.
By Sheri Flanders
When I was in college, I had a friend and we enjoyed watching colorguard videos together because we were both very cool. One day, he invited me to his church, knowing that I was an atheist. As I sat in the pew, sweating not unlike the proverbial whore, the preacher announced “If anyone would like to give their life to Jesus, come forward now!” Everyone in the congregation whipped around to stare at me as I demurely picked a microscopic piece of lint off my sweater. The next day, he asked me to attend again but I politely declined. The following night, a box of chocolate chip cookies mysteriously appeared at my dorm room door. They were the most delicious cookies I have ever tasted in my life. My friend never spoke to me again.
ALTAR BOYZ is like that, but much more fun!
The ensemble story follows a sweet, earnestly Christian boy-band on the rise to stardom and self-discovery through high-energy dance numbers and cheeky, punny songs. Like any good boy-band, each member has his stereotypical role to play: Luke, the hot yet dumb one (Colin Schreier), Matthew, the getting too old for this and the brains of the operation (Max DeTogne), Mark, the gay one (Frankie Leo Bennett), Abraham, the Jewish one (Steven Romero Schaeffer) and Juan, the Latino one (Marco Tzunux).
There is little more enjoyable than listening to well-executed 5 part harmony, and the Altar Boyz are perfectly paired, allowing you to drift on a song as their voices melt like butter on a warm biscuit. This is a well-cast ensemble and every single actor is a triple-threat and a standout. They dance, sing, act amazingly well and their comic timing is impeccable.
The costumes, dialogue and set design deftly play on the tropes of boy-bands and Christianity from the not quite edgy 1990’s interpretation of “urban” streetwear, complete with silver tennis shoes and asymmetrical superfluous zippered tops, to “hanging tough” references and zingers that get real belly laughs like “Mary Magdalicious”. There is an audience interaction bit where a female guest is serenaded by the audience that is very silly indeed. This is excellent, hilarious writing that is buoyed by the perfectly cast ensemble who commit 110% to mainlining the funk directly to your soul.
Right out of the gate the cast delivers several high energy, slickly and perfectly and hilariously choreographed dance numbers back to back. Director Courtney Crouse makes the right choice to invest heavily in great choreography by Sawyer Smith; nearly every moment of dance crackles and the cast executes the moves with aplomb and precision. Audience members of a certain age will squeal watching old dance moves brought to life.
The only moment of dance that could be reworked comes mid-show as the story and the energy of the dancers begins to lag. The cast imitates the classic James Brown exhaustion/cape bit and the moment feels like a letdown. James Brown was a freakishly high-energy showman, and when he flings off the cape, he comes back twice as strong. With performers as talented as these, this should be a highlight of mindblowing skill, potentially the best dance number in the show. However, I don’t know how they could possibly top what preceded it, as every moment of dance in the show starts at a 10. The problem starting at 10 is there’s nowhere to go but down. But this is merely a quibble, a tiny miss among otherwise impeccably stunning choreography. Just, respect the cape, y’all.
Normally I don’t enjoy being proselytized to, and make no mistake, this show is delivered straight, from the perspective of bright-eyed freshly scrubbed Christians earnestly saving souls. The cast maintains a bright and clean tone, not winking at the double-entendres. If you are looking for a scathing critique of Christianity, this ain’t it. I imagine this is what it must feel like to attend a really hip church. It’s a refreshing perspective, as sometimes a brutal takedown of the many flaws of religion can lead to the same set of jaded and predictable jokes. I never felt like I knew where they were going next.
Having said that, the play isn’t exempt from falling into trite cliché. While the overarching message is about celebrating differences, the script is so shallow that we aren’t taken on any meaningful exploration. Speaking to an issue that touches many plays, our society is changing more rapidly than we can keep up with, and I can feel this work aging in real time. Although some of the songs deliver a deeper insight with humor, such as one about the struggle to come out as gay, the Jewish and Latino storylines are written as the broadest possible stereotypes, and some of the jokes are just barely on the side of being tasteful groaners, throwbacks to a less nuanced time. It won’t be many years before some have fully crossed that fine line into cringeworthy; which is to be expected; very little comedy is evergreen.
Works based on stereotypes are often defended with the phrase “It’s just good fun,” meaning that light works should be absolved of self-examination. And indeed, the men in ALTAR BOYZ are purposefully naïve; hiding from the scary realities of growing up. The boy band lifestyle is a protective bubble where teenage boys don’t have sex before marriage and gay people don’t come out of the closet – at least not yet. It is a tender examination of male innocence and arrested development of a small subset of young men. Although working in a completely different genre and level, ALTAR BOYZ shares a similar tender core with the much-heralded play PASS OVER. It is always beautiful to see kind depictions of young men who aren’t hardened to the world yet.
But as PASS OVER deftly examines, a person of color is not always granted the experiences of innocence and fun on the same terms. And though the characters might rightly be lacking in self-reflection, the script should never be. There is a scene in the play where the well-intentioned Altar Boyz disastrously attempt to surprise Juan onstage (Marco Tzunux) by looking up the identity of his long-lost birth parents. Hilariously, the results are less-than-positive, and Juan is forced into a melodramatic “the show must go on” moment, processing his grief and trying to pull himself together in front of a live audience. The audience dies in uproarious laughter at this moment in the show – and it is a riotously funny. Tzunux sells the hell out of that moment spectacularly.
For me, as the only other dark face in the audience among the sea of white, this scene plays out on two levels. As stereotypical Latin music plays and the other Altar Boyz panic and repeatedly physically drag Juan back to the stage to perform through his pain and perform his pain for the pleasure of the audience, some may cringe and laugh simultaneously. The scene becomes unintended biting satirical commentary on who gets to define what is “fun” and who must tuck away inconvenient truths with a smile to maintain the illusion of unity.
We can all celebrate and bridge our differences as long as we don’t examine them too closely. Ain’t that America?
ALTAR BOYZ is a spectacular show with a powerhouse cast, stunning choreography and is delightfully silly. See it now before the script becomes obsolete!
ALTAR BOYZ is produced by Theo Ubique and runs through January 14th at the No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood Avenue in Rogers Park. For more information visit theo-u.com.