Friday, September 17, 2010

Altar Boyz, True North at French Creek

(The Boyz from left: Colin Bigley, Matthew Ryan Thompson, Josh Rhett Noble, Eric Fancher, and Alex Arroyo)

Even though the whole “make a word plural with a z” thing is totally played, the up-beat musical Altar Boyz, now being produced by True North at French Creek, can still generate a lot of grinz. This tuneful romp about five diverse young dudes in a Christian rock band oozes with charm, mixing sincere God talk with enough wry asides and winks so that even agnostics and atheists in the audience can find a foothold.

The music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker dominate, since the whole show is presented as a concert in progress. The differentiating gimmick is that there’s a computerized, glowing cross that shows how many audience souls have been saved from the clutches of Satan. If you feel a cringe coming on, relax. It’s all executed with boyish verve and none of the fundamentalist fervor that can get downright scary.

Four of the five chaps are named Matthew, Mark, Luke and Juan (you’ll never guess, he’s Hispanic!). And they are joined by Abraham, a wandering Jew who stumbles upon the group and is taken in because he knows how to write lyrics. These personalities, as written by book author Kevin Del Aguila, are one-dimensional, and it’s up to the performers to shake that shallowness and make these guys come alive. In this task, the True North cast is only partly successful.

The group is led by the (supposedly) pure-of-spirit Matthew, played by Josh Rhett Noble who is reprising a role he played at Beck Center a couple years ago. Noble sings well in a gentle, lyrical way—his “Something About You” solo is a tender highlight—and he establishes a firm center for the other players. Matthew Ryan Thompson makes the most of Mark, a juicy role since he’s the token gay boy who’s smitten with a non-comprehending Matthew. Thompson is always on point with his characterization, and he gives his star turn, double-meaning song “Epiphany” a rockin’ good feeling.

As Juan, Alex Arroyo starts off a bit heavy handed, making too much of the guttural “j” sounds as he teeters on caricature. But he gradually loosens up and turns an emotional event in the second act into a surprisingly affecting moment.

Eric Fancher plays Luke, the “bad boy,” but he never takes enough risks and one never senses the real rough side of this potentially interesting character. Luke should be generating constant friction with the other “do-gooders,” but that tension never develops. And Colin Bigley is largely transparent as Abraham, failing to find a through line for his character. Since he is a linchpin in the play’s climax, where the boys face a tough decision, this concluding moment fails to resonate.

Although the individual performances vary in quality, the boys are sharp when doing their group numbers. The voices blend pleasingly and they execute director/choreographer Sarah Clare’s often inventive dance moves with energy and precision. They are supported in fine fashion by music director Jordan Cooper’s tight four-member band.

Performed in a spacious theater/gallery in a handsome nature center facility, this show wears it’s belief openly and proudly. And it’s often quite a blast, even if you are a heathen.

Altar Boyz

Produced by True North Cultural Arts

at the French Creek Nature Center,

4530 Colorado Ave., Sheffield Village,


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