Playwright: Kevin Del Aguila; Songwriters: Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker
At: LaSalle Bank Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.
Phone: 312-902-1400; $30-$55
Through: Oct. 29
BY SCOTT C. MORGAN
Slick boy bands of the 1990s like the Backstreet Boys, 'N SYNC and 98 Degrees were known for having cute boys, amazing harmonies, synchronized dance moves and tight clothing. Millions of teenage girls with disposable incomes swooned. So did legions of gay men.
So it's no surprise that Altar Boyz, the hit 2005 off-Broadway musical spoofing boy bands, openly courts gay fans. How else to explain the show's Playbill illustration by Glen Hanson of the gay comic strip 'Chelsea Boys'?
But the Altar Boyz aren't just playing Chicago's LaSalle Bank Theatre to reach out to the musical theater queens of Boystown. As an overtly Christian boy band ( with a token Jewish songwriter ) , the Altar Boyz are out to sing Christ's praises and cleanse everyone's soul of sins.
You have to give lots of praise and credit to the creators and producers of Altar Boyz. What could have become a tedious 10-minute Saturday Night Live sketch has instead been refined and packaged into a high-energy and very funny 90-minute musical.
Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker's slyly winking Christian pop songs all sound frighteningly authentic. They've also got great eye-rolling lyrics like 'Jesus called me on my cell phone—No roaming charges were incurred' or 'Girl, you make me want to wait' for a crooning number about abstinence.
Kevin Del Aguila's year-old script remains surprisingly up to date with its jabs at boy band tabloid scandals and the growing corporate exploitation of Christian followers ( After Jesus, SONY gets singled out for the most praise ) .
Christopher Gattelli's choreography delights in its bouncy geometric patterns and is clearly as MTV-ready as the Altar Boyz themselves. And if director Stafford Arima hasn't divined all the potential humor from the newly formed cast ( Chicago is officially Altar Boyz's first tour stop ) , he can at least pride himself on how they all sing like a dream.
Clearly it's Ryan J. Ratliff's flamboyant Mark who steals the show with his glaring gay crush on fellow crooner Matthew ( Matthew Bucker ) . Ratliff's none-too-subtle gay innuendos make his big confession number exciting, even if its revelation doesn't work out as expected.
Another standout is Nick Blaemire's Abraham, the group's Jewish songwriter who doesn't seem so out of place once you consider how many great Christmas songs like 'White Christmas' and 'We Need a Little Christmas' were written by Jews. Rounding out the group is Jay Garcia's Juan ( think a shortened Ricky Martin if you must ) and Jesse JP Johnson as Luke ( get the obvious Gospel Books joke!? ) .
If the Altar Boyz's weird blend of Jesus and jive is clearly lampooned, the show's Christian satirical blade is never sharper than a butter knife ( unless of course you happen to be an easily offended right-wing Christian fundamentalist ) . And if you don't mind having extra Christian religiosity dished out ( on top of the constant stream from the Bush administration ) , then Altar Boyz is for you.
The Jataka Tales
Playwright: William Inge
At: Tireswing Theatre at Chicago Cultural Center, 77 E. Randolph
Phone: 312-742-8497; $10-$15
Through: Nov. 12
BY SCOTT C. MORGAN
Most American kids are familiar with fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm or are at least acquainted with Aesop and his fables. But it's a good bet they don't know about Buddhist Jataka tales.
Presented as parables to promote moral conduct and good behavior, Jataka Tales tell of Buddha's past incarnations—some in animal form. So it's almost seems natural that these tales would make for great children's theater.
Tireswing Theatre would also seem to be the prime company to adapt these tales. In the past they've tackled unconventional family theater ranging from Jabberwocky to The Fables of Leonardo da Vinci. Plus the timing is right with The Jataka Tales playing during Silk Road Chicago, the year-long citywide festival highlighting art and culture along the ancient Silk Road.
Tireswing's Jataka Tales starts off promising enough with an energetic dance by the cast percussively clacking sticks to the beat of active Asian music. It's too bad that the rest of the show doesn't maintain the opening's same excitement and energy level.
Adapted and directed by Tireswing co-founder Andrew Lines, The Jataka Tales outstays its welcome by about 15 minutes with a tad too many tales for the likes of squirmy kids. Lines doesn't quite succeed at finding a strong connective tissue to link these frequently fun but ultimately disparate vignettes into a cohesive whole. The show ends on a limp note when the final tale ( reminiscent of Chicken Little ) just abruptly ends before a rushed epilogue is handed out.
If the show as a whole isn't the greatest, at least many parts of Tireswing's Jataka Tales are top notch.
The five-member acting company shines in their multiple roles. Kelly Jean Badgley's feisty firecracker acting always pulls focus ( in a good way ) while Allan Aquino's acrobatic skills help him embody a monkey prince outsmarting the water demon of Vishael Patel. Janna Ridley and Sadieh Rifai both round out the committed cast.
Costume designer Kerith Wolf also deserves commendation for his creatively cheap solutions to making the cast into a zoological menagerie. Wolf's wire-mesh elephant head masks are a see-through sight to behold, while his simple facial add-ons to make the cast into lions and tigers gets the job done.
Perhaps The Jataka Tales might have been more successful if Lines could have produced more obvious and familiar moralizing to end each story. But to do so would have been more crassly Western than ponderously Asian. Either way, Tireswing deserves credit for trying something that is decidedly different for kids and their families.