Photo by Bob Christy
Altar Boyz at Porthouse
"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." So says Michael Corleone in the only memorable moment from the execrable movie The Godfather, Part III. But that's a statement we all may soon be muttering as we stare down the barrel of another potentially hellacious autumn and winter, possibly rife with COVID infections of the nasty Delta variety. So, share a thought for the poor theater administrators who at this moment, instead of preparing to fling open their doors with glee, are trying to assemble protocols for bringing audiences safely into their indoor spaces, sweating over their computers like bomb disposal experts afraid of cutting the wrong wire.
With that in mind, it may be a good idea to seize this moment in balmy August and enjoy an outdoor show with nothing on its mind but singing and dancing. Of course, the musical Altar Boyz now at the Porthouse Theatre also has God on its mind since the title is also the name of the five-member Christian-rock boy band whose "Raise the Praise" concert we are watching. Under the direction of Terri Kent, the show delivers some peppy pop-rock songs, a few hip-grinding dance moves, and enough laughs to grease the wheels of this lighter-than-air fare.
Heathens take note: This is a safe space not just for those who adore religion-tinted material but also for those who would usually run screaming in the other direction. This is because the two most engaging characters in the show are Luke, a happily unredeemed druggie and Mark, a barely-closeted gay boy who has his eyes on the group leader, Matthew. These guys who are named after disciples are joined by the Latin-x Juan and Abraham, a Jew who joins the group due to his facility for writing lyrics.
As the concert proceeds, the Boyz keep referring to the Soul Sensor DX-12, an electronic marvel that scans the audience and detects lost souls yearning to be saved. It is their object to save every single one of them by the end of the concert with the power of their boyish charm and God-talk. Without revealing the heart-pounding result (you'll never guess!), it must be said that the cast pours all their energy into the effort. After relating how they were called to this work by Jesus—via cell phone and Twitter—the Boyz deliver the music by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker with style that's enhanced by the not-so-pious choreography by Martin Cespedes.
As Luke, the Boy who blames his glassy-eyed unreliability on "exhaustion," Evan Waggoner demonstrates muscular stage presence and a loose, gangly affect. Brandon Schumacker is just as natural but prim and precise as Mark, a fey Boy who knows what he wants—and it's Matthew. Unfortunately for Mark, Matt (a solid and studly Elijah Lee King) is clueless as he croons about the girl he loves who is so hot "you make me want to wait." Antonio Emerson Brown gives Juan a poignant touch when he sings "La Vida Eternal," about his parents, and Devin Pfeiffer captures a sliver of the Neil Diamond vibe in the power ballad "Everybody Fits."
That said, there are a few spots in this mostly hot show that feel tepid. One is in the song "Epiphany," sung well by Schumacker but written as a coy nod to tortured Mark coming out, but not in the way you might expect. The joke was no doubt a lot fresher when the show opened in 2005, but now seems a bit dense. Also, the climactic song "Number 918," which is the group's desperate last-gasp attempt to reduce to zero the number of tormented souls in the audience, is just a remix—musically and choreographically—of what has come before. The Boyz' elaborate set-up to the song, complete with a chest full of new wardrobe accessories, results in a number that squeakz rather than sizzlez.
That said, it was a splendid season at Porthouse with three dynamic productions of small-cast shows. Let's hope we can experience director Kent's mastery of big-cast musicals next summer, when hopefully the pandemic in all its guises will be a distant, ghastly memory.
Through August 15 at Porthouse Theatre, Blossom Music Center Campus, 3143 O'Neil Road, Cuyahoga Falls, OH 44223, 330-672-3884, kent.edu/porthouse.