Theo Ubique is one of Chicago’s small treasures. Hidden away in the small, easy-to-miss No Exit Cafe in Rogers Park where they perform cabaret style, (they will move to their own dedicated theatre in Evanston next year), they have produced sixty musicals in their twenty-year history, winning numerous accolades and Jeff Awards in the process. Their new production, Altar Boyz, the long-running off-Broadway hit, shows why they are considered one of the best companies in the city for musicals.
Altar Boyz is a faux concert by a Christian boys’ band, and the script, lyrics, and choreography poke gentle fun at such bands and at Christian music as well. The five members of the band, Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham (the Jewish one), sing and dance up a storm and interact with each other and the audience all night long in ways that are both very funny and designed to help us to know them individually. And despite the fact that there are no overt moments of character building dialogue, director Courtney Crouse teases out performances that make it so that we do feel by the end of the evening that we know these young men, the result both of the script and excellent performances by the actors.
As Matthew, the band’s leader, Max DeTogne shines. His beautiful voice is only part of the story: we get to know him as a sympathetic human being who deeply cares about his cause. In one of the show’s highlights (there are many), he pulls a young woman onstage to sing a song about his first love: “Girl, you make me want to wait”; it’s seemingly the highest Christian praise he can think of. (After this, one of the Boyz tells him he has “a special blend of charisma and spunk: crunk.” Matthew is also the one most affected by the show’s ongoing schtick regarding a “Soul Sensor DX12” that measures the state of the audience’s souls. When the “sensor’s” tallies continue to show too many audience members in danger of eternal damnation, he takes it very personally and is determined to do whatever it takes to help them.
Frankie Leo Bennett’s closeted Mark is a brilliant character. His unrequited (and unspoken) love for Matthew is an open subtext throughout the play, and with it he endears himself to the audience almost immediately. Near the end of the show he has a wonderful song in which he comes out…as a Catholic. (“Your posse might not think it’s dope to confess your sins and like the Pope—I’m a Catholic!”) Bennett’s clear tenor voice, boundless energy, and nearly constant smile make Mark a truly winning character.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Colin Schreier’s Luke. Playing the uneducated Luke must be a fun challenge for the clearly bright Schreier, who crafts a character who loves to appear shirtless and fails to understand even basic things, but is completely charming. Because there is no guile in Luke whatsoever, every word he says seems to come directly from his heart, a nice trick Schreier pulls off effortlessly. Telling the audience how easily everyone can be saved by the Lord, for instance, he responds to “Even if you’re an agnostic” by saying that it isn’t a problem “just because you have an eating disorder.” We laugh, but we know how utterly sincere he is, so we love him anyway.
Then there is Marco Tzunux’s Juan, who was orphaned as a baby and grew up with American parents who taught him everything, including a Spanish accent. Probably the most sympathetic of the Boyz, Juan’s desire to meet his real parents forms the core of a late “plot twist” (if this show can be said to have a plot), after which Tzunux is in actor heaven: he gets to overact and exaggerate all of the extreme emotions his character is feeling during the song “La Vida Eternale.”
The most unusual Altar Boy is clearly Steven Romero Schaeffer’s Jewish Abraham, who finds himself a member of a Christian boys’ band pretty much by accident (and divine fiat), and makes himself invaluable as the group’s lyricist. Shaeffer’s boyish good looks and lovely, clear voice only increase his value, and by the play’s end it is Abraham who reminds the rest of them what being part of a group is all about.
Crouse keeps all of this moving along at a quick pace all night, and Sawyer Smith’s boy band choreography with a touch of Jesus thrown in for good measure is both wonderful and a hoot. The three-piece band under the direction of Jeremy Ramey keeps the small club hopping, while Abigail Reed’s set and James Kolditz’s lights evoke a pop concert perfectly. Kate Setzer Kamphausen’s costuming is consistently fun and even surprising, and I don’t know who procured or made the puppets but I loved the yarmulke on Abraham’s.
“We don’t believe in hurtin’ or in hatin’ / ‘Cause that’s the kind of stuff that leads to Satan,” the group sings in its first song, “We Are the Altar Boyz,” telling us, “we’re gonna alter your mind.” Well, my mind was altered. I’m now solidly a fan of five guys named Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham, and even more a fan of Theo Ubique. Altar Boyz takes its place among their finest work; it’s heavenly entertainment for everyone.
Altar Boyz is now playing at No Exit Cafe (presented by Theo Ubique), 6970 N. Glenwood, until January 14. Times vary; check website. Tickets are $5-30 and are available from Theo Ubique. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.
Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member