I've seen thousands of theater productions over the past 22 years — enough to have forgotten hundreds — but the memory of how much I abhorred the off-Broadway production of Altar Boyz is still fresh after three-and-a-half years. So with considerable pleasure, I can report that the current Queen City Theatre Company production at Duke Energy Theatre eclipses the one I saw at New World Stages in nearly every respect.
Admittedly, I didn't manage to review the off-Broadway version until it was already in its 11th month and the original cast had departed -- so my critique did allow for the possibility that the original cast had put more spark in the Gary Adler-Michael Patrick Walker score and coaxed more laughs out of the Kevin Del Aguila script. No conjecture about the Queen City bunch. They're all funnier than those New York retreads, and they righteously rock.
My opinion of the show didn't make an instantaneous U-turn on opening night. The fault was not in the stars but in the sound booth, which had levels potted up about 10dB beyond my comfort zone -- and the clipping point of the equipment. Additional tech problems occurred soon afterward when the gay Altar Boyz' head mic unstuck, forcing production coordinator Kristian Wedolowski to play a real-life role in the fictional farewell concert.
Once the sonic torture subsided, the Queen City cast began to work their rehab on the music and the comedy. It's amazing how much difference real youth and real enthusiasm can make -- though the propulsive urgency of the five-piece backup band, led by Marty Gregory at the keyboard, has to figure in the reckoning.
For reasons that will be clarified in the denouement, Charlotte is the last stop on the Altar Boyz national tour. The closeted, overtly gay Mark has an industrial-strength crush on group leader Matthew, the only person in the building who doesn't notice. Luke, whose non-musical talent doesn't extend beyond driving the van, hasn't quite come to terms with assorted substance abuse issues, while Juan is on a determined quest to find his parents. The fifth wheel in this Christian boy group is Abraham, the Jewish kid, granted membership on the strength of his ability to write lite preachy lyrics. Gotta hand it to those Jews -- they're literate!
OK, so I still don't see how such a sell-out would be sporting a yarmulke, but I'm over that. Joseph Veale makes as much as one can of this implausible role in his Charlotte debut, favoring wholesomeness over braininess. But the real showstoppers are master clogger Tyler Mercereau, in a sensational local debut as the ultra-swishy group choreographer, and Alex Aguilar as the group's Hispanic fashion plate. Aguilar's inconsolable throw-me-into-the-grave grief in "Vida Eternal," alternating with his zesty salsa gyrations, is the comedy sensation of the evening, nearly matched by Mercereau's out-of-the-closet "Epiphany."
There are other comedy treats. Tim Leftwich is reliably dimwitted and punkish all evening long, glorifying his ignorance in "Body Mind & Soul." When all else has failed to cleanse every audience member of sinfulness -- that is the dopey mission of every Altar Boyz concert -- the group resorts to "Number 918," a rock 'n' roll exorcism. To celebrate abstinence, Jonathan Van Caudill as Matthew plucks a hapless young gal from the audience, brings her onstage, and serenades her with "Something About You (Makes Me Want to Wait)." Caudill underplays Matt's vanity and obtuseness. Wise move.
Drilled by choreographers Courtney Johnson and Alyson Lowe, the Boyz sustain higher levels of energy in their routines than I saw in New York. Better yet, under Glenn Griffin's direction, we don't forget that this is a Christian group, though so many of their antics rip against that premise. With whirling laserlights and grungy barebones scaffolding, the set and lighting designs of Andrew Fisher and Emily Eudy help keep the concert ambiance intense. Up in New York, they hardly try.
One little economy reminds us that Queen City isn't operating on a Gotham budget: The so-called Sony gizmo that mystically counts down the number of souls yet to be cleansed in the house doesn't have the same digital dazzle. On the other hand, Q.C.'s set design utilizes a home field advantage I never knew about before, unveiling two stained-glass windows on the back wall that add a religious aura to the flashback scene where the Altar Boyz' origins are revealed.
No, that doesn't fully counterbalance the Sony doodad, but a production this fine doesn't need to.