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Published: Thursday, 10/9/2008

Altar Boyz from the neighborhood

BY NANCIANN CHERRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

There s a lot of Marc Kessler in Altar Boyz.

The Lambertville native conceived the show that has been an off-Broadway hit since arriving on the scene in the 2004 New York Music Festival. On the road, the boyz have entertained audiences across America and in several foreign countries.

Now on another national tour, the show visits the Valentine Theatre for a single performance Saturday.

The show is about a Christian boy band from Ohio, which is out to save the world, one soul at a time. The band s national Raise the Praise tour includes Toledo as its final stop. The final stop, of course, changes with each city, allowing the performers to include local references and customize the jokes.

I had a lot of Catholic background in my life, Kessler said ina telephone interview from New York, where he works as an actor and playwright. I was an altar boy at St. Anthony s in Temperance, and I attended St. Francis [de Sales High School in Toledo].

A graduate of the University of Michigan with a bachelor of fine arts in musical theater, Kessler got the seed of the idea for Altar Boyz when he was flipping TV channels one evening and saw not only boy bands such as N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, but also a bunch of copycats, including a Christian group.

Here they were, singing about God and making all these archetypical boy-band moves, even the sexual and suggestive stuff. It was so funny, I thought it would make a great Saturday Night Live skit.

Working with Ken Davenport, who ultimately produced the show, Kessler said he noticed that each band used the same formula: a good-looking guy, a bad boy, the sensitive one, the ethnic one, the brainy one.

Using those stereotypes, Altar Boyz began to gel when they came up with the names of the band members: Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham.

Then I knew we had something.

Philip Drennen, who plays Matthew (he s the hunk), says religion may be the hook for the plot, but Altar Boyz is really about the music.

There are dance songs, hip-hop, and some really beautiful ballads, he said in a telephone interview from Huntsville, Ala.

It s not preachy or offensive.

A Dayton native, Drennen, 24, became acquainted with the show about three years ago when he was studying at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

While in school, Drennen played saxophone in a lot of jazz groups, and that background helps with the role, he said. Jazz teaches you to have a musical ear and be spontaneous, he said. There are plenty of opportunities to ad-lib in Altar Boyz, so knowing how and when to do it is a plus.

Another of the boyz, Tim Dolan, believes that Altar Boyz is fun with a message. When it s all said and done, it s about family and brotherhood.

A native of Michigan s McComb County, Dolan, 23, said he has about 60 people coming to see the show, and a lot of them have been puzzling about his character. He plays Abraham, the brainy one who also happens to be Jewish.

Abe still hasn t figured out how he became a member of the band; he just kind of fell into it, Dolan said. My character finally decides that it may not make a lot of sense, but if God wanted him there, that was fine with him.

Along with Drennen and Dolan, the cast comprises Anton Fero as Luke, Dan Scott as Mark, and Andres Quintero as Juan.

Kessler believes Altar Boyz works no matter how audience members feel about religion. He called the show a contemporary musical that pokes fun at pop culture references.

I didn t want to create a show that would offend people religiously, but I didn t want to go too far in the other direction either, he said.

With the track record we have all over the world, I think [Altar Boyz] successfully walks the line.

Altar Boyz is scheduled at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Valentine Theatre, 400 North Superior St. Tickets range from $33 to $45. Information: 419-242-2787.

Contact Nanciann Cherry at: ncherry@theblade.comor 419-724-6130.



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