Altar Boyz ‘The Altar Boyz’ arrived in Sydney on Thursday, not to be confused with our own Choir Boys. The show premiered at the Seymour’s Everest Theatre fresh from a highly acclaimed run off Broadway.

It’s billed as a musical comedy which it probably isn’t but it is a very entertaining treat of cabaret based on a Christian boy’s band giving their final performance of ‘Raise the Praise’ tour. The nub of the story is a swipe at the revival Pentecostal Charismatic movement that has been very much in vogue since the turn of the millennium. God spoke (in the voice of Brendan Jones) to each of the boys individually in concert and commissioned them to go out and save souls.

So that’s exactly what these boys are doing. Most of the songs concern their individual testimony of pathways to salvation through Christ. Their respective states out of grace are laid out in sufficiently detail to send the ‘soul sensor’ going up and down the index as if it metering the price of petrol. And so they bear witness to the salvation of us all. Ken Davenport, the original producer, who along with Mark Kessler came up with the idea, is quoted as saying, ‘… when we found Abraham, I knew we had a musical’. While he may have been referring to the fact that it opened the possibility for the glorious five part harmony which the show features he was probably referring to the fact that it gave them the hook for the payoff on the story.

It has been described elsewhere as 'wafer-thin’ but writers of the music and lyrics, Gary Adler and  Michael Walker, comment, ‘… over … three and a half years we wrote about thirty songs and only used twelve of them.’ That’s a lot of effort to put into a wafer even if it is to be served at mass. The truth is that it is an exceptionally well researched and developed satire on modern Christian religious movements and the Pentecostal in particular. Either that or its something that Wil Anderson should consider examining on Denton’s ‘The Gruen Transfer’ as an even more amazing bit of advertising.

The music and melodies are wonderfully vibrant and actually do cover an extraordinary range of styles ‘from disco to latin, from hip-hop to gospel, to rock and soaring Mariah Carey style ballads’. The lyrics are a very cleverly devised take on every aspect of the new religious pitch whether testamentary, in ‘La Vida Eternal’ or the liturgy, ‘Something About You’ nothing in this show is sacred, unless it all is.

The present production by Steve Loe and Colin Grayson producers, with director Kate Gaul, musical director Robert Gavin and choreographer Antony Ginandjar, assisted by Ashley Evans is a very slick piece of theatre. The energy is sustained and the dance routines are superb.

The music, under Gavin’s direction on first keyboard with Geofrey Castles on second keyboard, Eric Rasmussen on guitar and Andrew Massey on drums carries the numerous stylistic changes like a melodic chameleon.

It is in every sense of the word an all singing, all dancing delight.

Andy McDonnell’s set suitably presents the stage for the boy’s big night framed in a metallic Mechano arch which becomes the ‘Soul Sensor’. It operates like a speed check at road works and measures just how well the boy’s are going with their heavenly commission. The aim on the night is to capture all of those present, ‘Not one shalt thou lose that I have entrusted to thee.’  Suitably all crosses at this revival meet are of the risen representation, there’s nothing of Mel’s horror pageant here. Tonight it’s all sunlight and hope. This is the radiance that would have made the likes of the late Fr Malachi Martin and adherents of the Tridentate mass positively choke on their spleen. If you like your faith sweet and syrupy with your cup running over you’ll love the boy’s ‘Raise the Praise’ tour. It’s Billy Graham on soufflé, it’s redemption on tick.

The lighting by Luiz Pampolha seemed a bit tame and predictable. Maybe we have come to expect these entertainments to be accompanied by mega light displays that are more than the average theatre space can deliver. Still his inventiveness came through in the penultimate number which, while not exactly ‘heavy’ was metallic enough to ring in images of the ‘dark one’ and provoke the admission on the part of Matthew that he had failed them. He had gone and signed up on a solo deal.

Herein lies the rather clever denouement. The ‘old’ faith had ‘original sin’ and what you had to do to beat it (‘Something About You’). The ‘new’ faith is all about it having been done for you, a sort of ‘forgiveness’ gene that we all get to share in (‘Everybody Fits’). Once there was a man who was faithful and through him all mankind is saved so ‘Don’t worry, be happy!’ According to one version it was Jesus the other has it as Abraham. Kevin Del Aguila, the writer of the book has worked out a way for this band to cover it both ways. No wonder they loved it in New York.

The cast, Cameron MacDonald as Matthew, Dion Bilios as Mark, Tim Maddren as Luke, Jeremy Brennan as Juan and Andrew Koblar as Abraham were well up to the demands placed upon them both in terms of vocal range and mix and the dance routines. Bilios was outstanding in his innate rhythm and sense of movement. His salacious insinuations around the stage were deft and precise and his movement was a joy to behold.

There isn’t usually a great deal of reliance on the book in cabaret, the story is told in the lyrics. This was no exception although Del Aguila devised the inventive scenario that ties the whole thing together.

It was Gaul’s baptism in the musical genre and while her appreciable strengths in pace and nuancing were evident there was a noticeable absence of the performers being ‘in the moment’ with Bilios the exception. The accents despite the involvement of Jennifer White as dialect coach were a problem. Madden gave up on his ‘yo’all’ from the land of the Dixie Chick’s when he launched into his rap number and apparently thought better of reviving it while Brennan’s Hispanic vocalizing left him all but unintelligible in speech and little better in song.

Generally the sound was adequate but designer Michael Waters may have had his work cut out for him. It seems to be a repeated problem with the basic sound system provided by the Seymour very much in evidence in‘The Hatpin’ earlier in the Seymour season in the York by what appears to be a poorly engineered system. It was noticeably tweaked during the performance but with little improvement. The balance suffered and there was an unacceptable level of distortion even at low level amplification.

If perchance you stray upon a similar service outside the theatre remember ‘The Gruen Transfer’ and Wil’s repeated warning to read the labels, don’t just rely on the message or they get you without you even noticing. It’s especially good advice in the subject case because by all accounts He who commissioned the boys enforces a very strict ‘no return’ policy.


Altar Boyz

Venue: Everest Theatre | Seymour Centre, Cnr Clevelend Street and City Road, Chippendale
Season: 11 June – 2 August 2008
Performances: Tuesday – Saturday 8pm; Saturday 2.30pm; Sunday 2.30pm & 6pm
Prices: Adults from $55; Concession from $44.00
Bookings: (02) 9351 7940 | www.seymourcentre.com.au or www.ticketmaster.com.au
Information: www.altarboyz.com.au

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