Here come the Altar Boyz

November 09, 2006|By Meredith Goldstein | Meredith Goldstein,New York Times News Service

OMG! They're totally here. :)

The Altar Boyz, heavenly voices and dreamy eyes, are in town UNTIL SUNDAY. For real!

Sorry for the boy-band speak. It just seems the right way to introduce Altar Boyz, the hit off-Broadway musical about a Christian boy band gunning for stardom. The show -- it's at the Hippodrome through Sunday -- features Backstreet Boys-inspired songs in five-part harmony, with choreography that will make you nostalgic for the late 1990s. Big numbers have such lyrics as "Girl, you make me wanna wait" and "Jesus called me on my cell phone."

Yes, it's a parody.

But it may feel like a real boy band has descended upon Baltimore. Altar Boyz has "Altarholics," giddy fans who find one another online at to chat about their favorite boy and complete online challenges for points called "communion wafers," which can, of course, be "redeemed" for prizes. Altar worshipers include Kevin Bacon, Cynthia Nixon, Liza Minnelli and Jeff Timmons, formerly of the real boy band 98 Degrees.

We got the chance to chat with the stars playing God's Fab Five -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan -- and, yes, Abraham -- by phone from their tour's first stop in Chicago.

Luke (Jesse JP Johnson)

Johnson, 20, started his career in the touring production of Grease.

"I always wanted to be in some sort of pop group when I was younger," he says. "This is a combination of everything I wanted to do."

Johnson, from Littleton, Colo., is the youngest of the actors on the tour. He says there's a bit of himself in Luke, whom he calls "the Vanilla Ice" of the Altar Boyz.

"You know, all these guys live in a suburban place, but he's the one who watched MTV and thought the guys looked cool with baggy pants," Johnson says of his alter ego. "He's a little slow."

Luke's dark secret? "He recently got out of rehab due to `exhaustion,'" Johnson says wryly.

Matthew (Matthew Buckner)

Buckner, a New York native, now makes his home in Orlando. Until he joined Altar Boyz, he was playing a werewolf at Universal Studios. In Altar Boyz, Matthew's role is clear. He's the Justin Timberlake.

"I think one review called me a carbon copy of Justin Timberlake," Buckner says. `'I've heard it throughout my life."

Matthew's big number? A love song with an atypical promise: abstinence. "I hope you'll understand, my love, when I sing you this refrain," Matthew croons, "I believe in God, and so I must abstain."

Juan (Jay Garcia)

Garcia explains that his character is adopted and that Juan's ridiculously exaggerated accent is said to have been taught to him by the nuns who raised him. They decided that's what Latino people sounded like.

"He's not sure if he's Mexican, Puerto Rican, or what," Garcia, says, adding that Juan has a few role models.

`'He watches Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias and decides they have similar features. He takes on a lot of their traits."

The 26-year-old Garcia advises fans to watch out for his show-stopping number, "La Vida Eternal," and his favorite speech in Altar Boyz, which is about "coveting."

Abraham (Nick Blaemire)

Because the Altar Boyz accept all kinds, they even welcome a Jew. They don't even try to convert him, says Blaemire, 22, who in real life is half-Jewish.

Blaemire calls his character a cross between a boy-band type and Weird Al Yankovic. "He's sort of a dork," he says. `'He's the one who has taken the magnet classes when he didn't have to. He kind of stumbles upon these guys and is blown away by their passion."

Blaemire, who got his role right after graduating from the University of Michigan, admits he's a boy-band fan. He even has a favorite. " 'N Sync," he says. `'I was a closeted fan for quite some time."

Mark (Ryan J. Ratliff)

To put it gently, Mark is the Lance Bass of the Altar Boyz.

"Yes. That's it," says Ratliffe. "Mark is exactly that. Sensitive. If there's a confrontation in the group, he's the first one to go bake cookies."

Ratliff, 25, who hails from Ohio, says it's tricky playing Mark because everyone is in on the joke except the people onstage. All the actors have to stay oblivious to the Lance-ness of it all, especially Mark's fondness for Matthew. It's a platonic crush, of course.

Audience members "are the only people who are allowed to think he's a closet case and that it's ridiculous," he says. "It's so surreal."

Show times at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St., are 8 p.m. today-Saturday and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $22-$52. Call 410-547-SEAT or visit

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