Dear Susan Sontag, wherever you are: It is a pity you're no longer with us to comment on a very enthusiastic Off-Broadway musical that looks as if it might just run at Dodger Stages until the Second Coming. It's called Altar Boyz. Note the z — the one last perfect touch on a pluperfect example of Camp,dealing with, of all things, sexual purity.
They are a boy(z) band of five impressively energetic young men, four of whom are Christians, as chaste in their desires as the driven snow. But just when you think the theatre is going to vaporize into an ear-pounding hip-hop cloud of piety and chastity, we're suddenly yanked smack into irony with: Jesus called me on my cell phone / No roaming charges were incurred . . . / He beeped me / He faxed me / He e-mailed my soul / and said: / til the day I'm dead / that I must spread / His glorious word.
"That's the contrast," says Ken Davenport. "That's how Jesus would appear in an MTV world."
It was Davenport and Marc Kessler, Catholics both, who had co-starred in Forever Plaid and three years ago were kicking around ideas for a show they themselves could produce, "when out popped this idea of a Christian boy band — and Marc said, 'Yeah, and their names would be Matthew, Mark, Luke and Juan.' "In that instant," says Davenport, "I knew we had something. Then Marc said, 'Wait a minute. There's another one, and he's Jewish.'"
The Matthew of the show, No. 1 among equals, is Scott Porter; Mark is Tyler Maynard; Luke is brawny, bumbling Andy Karl; and Juan, the Latino with an eye for the girls — the virgin girls, natch — is Ryan Duncan.
And Abraham? That's David Josefsberg, who will respond to the question of whether Jews are allowed in the church with: "I think so. I just saw one on the cross above the altar." But when Abraham describes the Altar Boyz as a rock group that "has evolved," Matthew throws in a cautionary "Don't say 'evolved.'" No absolution for you, Charles Darwin.
Davenport says he wasn't sure the audience would get the jokes. But the screaming teenyboppers who fill the house seem to understand everything. Helping them understand is the clever book by Kevin Del Aguila and the driving music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker.
"I don't think there's anything in this show that any church official would disapprove of," says Davenport. "It's a comedy about acceptance, about loving your brother. It's what I was taught as a child: Jesus comes with arms open."
And if Benedict XVI came and saw and exploded? "You know what? I'll invite him, and if he doesn't like it, I'll comp his ticket."