Monday, April 07, 2008

Sweetly sardonic musical on boy-band craze

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 04.07.2008

Sugar defines Rep’s ‘Altar Boyz,’ while vinegar marked Goethe Institut-Manila’s ‘Slipped Disc’

A Christian boy band?

You can start laughing now--but only in appreciation. Daft concept notwithstanding, the bopping, grooving, shimmying band of young holy warriors who constitute Repertory Philippines’ Altar Boyz has unleashed a darn good show.

Their mock concert, part of a putative “Raise the Praise World Tour,” opened last Friday at Onstage Greenbelt 1, Makati, and will run for three weekends until April 27. Consider it a sin to fail to catch this exhilarating exercise in expert musical silliness.

In fact, you wouldn’t find stranger bedfellows than the ones “Altar Boyz” might possibly offend and unite against itself: boy-band fanatics and pious Catholics.

The musical, which won the New York Outer Critics Award in 2005, pokes fun at the manufactured slickness of both the boy-band genre and organized religion. However, only the dourest and most churlish would begrudge “Altar Boyz” its moment in the light.

It’s a sweet soufflé of a musical that rises on the sly perkiness of the material and the joyous performances of its actors.

With music by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, and a hoot of a book by Kevin Del Aguila, “Altar Boyz” appropriates the synthetic look, sound and movements of Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, 98 Degrees and their ilk, and grafts them onto a slim storyline about attractive, immaculate young men charged with saving souls through pop music.

That clash between the sweaty, flirty world of boy-band crooning and the more abstemious calling they’ve sworn themselves to makes for hilarious possibilities.

Superb job
PJ Valerio, Red Concepcion, Chevy Mercado, Reb Atadero and Reuben Uy are Rep’s Altar Boyz, and they do a superb job of impersonating--and subverting--boy-band conventions, down to the synchronized moves, the tight harmonies and the well-practiced patter.

Chari Arespacochaga’s direction is, as usual, tight and clean, coaxing out the material’s spoofy charms with an evenhanded touch.

One could cavil about Valerio as Matthew, the group’s frontman and heartthrob. An appealing singer-dancer, he also seems much too young to get the ironic subtleties of the text.

When he warbles that winking ode to abstinence, “Something About You” (When I hold your body next to mine/It feels so good/And feels so right/And it also makes my Levi’s feel real tight), you’d wish he’d learn to be more playful, less square. Especially with the cliff-hanging last lines--the only moment when a hint of raunchiness is allowed to peek out in the show.

With Valerio at its earnest center, it’s left to the two exotic fowls in the flock--the Latino Juan (Atadero) and the “sensitive” Mark (Concepcion)--to goose up the proceedings with their zany antics.

Atadero, a newcomer to professional musical theater, seizes his moment with admirable self-assurance and comic timing. Concepcion is an unalloyed delight as the flamboyant Mark, drawing shrieks with just a gooey look at Valerio, or a swivel of his hyperactive hips.

He is also the group’s best singer, his high, piercing tenor lovely to hear especially in Mark’s “coming-out” anthem, “Epiphany.”

Mercado and Uy are no slouches, either, with dancing and singing skills that more than do justice to their parts.

Together, the five boys are a spark of infectious energy, goading the audience to bop along to a cavalcade of catchy, Top 40-sounding songs with guffaw-inducing lyrics (Jesus called me on my cell phone/No roaming charges were incurred/...He beeped me, He faxed me, He e-mailed my soul..., from “The Calling”).

You’re beyond saving if this bright, fizzy show doesn’t leave you with a goofy smile and a skip in your step on your way out of the theater.

(Rep’s “Altar Boyz” runs until April 27 at Onstage, Greenbelt 1. Call 8870710 or visit

Acerbic play
If sugar defines “Altar Boyz,” vinegar was the main ingredient of Ingrid Lausund’s “Slipped Disc: A Study of the Upright Work.”

The acerbic German play about savage office politics received its Philippine premiere recently with four performances at the Goethe-Institut Manila, directed by Lito Casaje.

Casaje, artistic director of Dramatis Personae, allowed his five veteran actors (Richard Cunanan, Mailes Kanapi, Jeffrey Quizon, Lynn Sherman and Jake Macapagal) to improvise on a basic dramatic plotline: five office workers on the verge of dementia and meltdown as they waited for their Monday morning turns before the tyrannical (and unseen) boss.

As they gathered in the anteroom for the terrifying color-coded buzz from hell, their relationships played out in fast, fierce, furious dialogue--an Altmanesque tapestry of overlapping lines, asides, comebacks, interjections.

Lausund’s writing rose to blackly comic heights with a novel approach to dialogue. The actors talked to each other in polite, everyday language, but in the next breath spat out the cruder, more vicious subtext of their words.

Hardly a beat separated these bi-polar ejaculations. Id and ego cohabited on the same plane--a strange, riveting arrangement that underlined the warped psychologies of the characters.

It’s a testament to how good the actors were that these complex shadings came through with sensitivity and clarity.

As the alpha-male Hufschmidt, Cunanan offered the most fully-rounded character, helped along by the text, which gave him, alone among the five, a Freudian back story. His long, ebullient monologue in the second act was a high point, and the performance itself the best we’ve seen from this characteristically forceful actor.

Kanapi, tackling an English-language play for a change, performed small miracles of physical comedy, using her voice and body to convey asphyxiation as the company’s resident power woman, Schmitt.

The play’s improvisatory atmosphere was also a boon to Quizon, as the loser Kruse. The actor played his part to the hilt, using his rubbery face to mine his dead-end place in the pecking order with tearful, aggrieved hilarity.

As the barely contained hysteric Kristensen, Sherman’s line readings were deadpan but delicious. “Well, that meeting went really well,” she said, as she slowly turned around to reveal a knife stuck at her back.

Sleek, dashing
It’s Macapagal’s character, the social-climbing Kretzky, that rather floated above this ensemble of misfits. Sleek, dashing, oily, Kretzky’s rise in the office, with more and more power over his colleagues, occasioned a corresponding nosedive in his character’s ability to interest us.

Macapagal is a subtle, effective actor, but his own monologue of awakening in Act 2 became an interminable moment of navel-gazing, distending a play already bloated in places by the actors’ gleeful riffing.

“Slipped Disc’s” first act provided a tense, high-wire act of sharp knives, exposed nerves and wary conspiracies. The second act, bafflingly, disintegrated as the play detoured toward the soft and smarmy.

The rigorously corrosive tone of the early scenes, dazzling in its satirical punch, would limp toward a particularly lame finale. How about the five characters ending up as friends and singing, offstage, “You’ve Got a Friend?”

The lesson of “Slipped Disc”: Sour and saccharine could only leave an odd aftertaste.


Misterhubs said...

Thanks for nudging us to watch Altar Boyz. I didn't know if I was going to like it but I really did. Red Concepcion gave the best performance but everyone had their shining moment too. The one playing the Jewish guy was good but he was the weakest link, I think.


TheBachelorGirl said...

I found it fascinating that from the atheists to the Catholics, and everybody else in between, all found it amusing, albeit for different reasons.

A pleasure, as always, to see you. :-D

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