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Ask the average ex-evangelical Protestant what he misses most from his time in the Jesus Freak scene, and chances are he’ll muse about the music. Outsiders find the hands-in-the-air routine creepy and cultish, but I sometimes miss the goosebumps and sense of elation that I felt during the crescendos on “Open the Eyes of my Heart, Lord,” “I could Sing of you Love Forever,” or “The Heart of Worship.”
Cheap nostalgia is one of the reasons I enjoyed Altar Boyz, the Jesus-fueled, boy-band satire playing at Bethesda Theatre.
The setting: The Altar Boyz, a designer-dressed Christian boy band from suburban Ohio, are playing the last concert of their national tour. During every show they measure the evangelical success of their music using the Soul Sensor DX-12, a device which reveals how many audience members have yet to “come to Jesus.” By the end of the show, the group has sung, danced, and confessed its way through 12 songs but hasn’t managed to bring the number of lost souls down to zero (the dark answer as to why makes the ending).
There’s much to enjoy right on the surface: the constant stream of Christ-checking (the Christian practice of incorporating praise, thanks, or confession into every, single, fucking sentence), the funny names of the band—Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham (the lone Jewish member), and the dancing, which is never as technically clean as N’Sync or the Back Street Boys, and twice as “duurty.”
The singing is better than you might expect for an “off-Broadway production,” and the camp and irreverence draw laughs even while the characters are positing discomfiting platitudes. Yet at certain points, the authenticity made me shrink into my seat. Altar Boyz touches on some serious Christian conflicts: Mark is a closet case, Luke is an alcoholic, and Matthew (the leader of the group) is the guy who circumvents his belief in chastity by arguing that blowjobs don’t count (ok, that last part wasn’t really in the play—but having grown up a Jesus Freak, I know the “BJs don’t count” type when I see ’em).
By the one-hour mark, I reconciled myself to the fact that the musical wasn’t going to explore Mark’s crush on Matthew, or Luke’s lust for the blood of Christ. Sex and substances are big issues, and it seems that there’s no light-hearted way to confront the socially conservative undercurrents of the contemporary Youth Group movement. This revelation almost kept me from enjoying the last minutes of the play, which in turn caused me to feel even worse.
Leave it to an agnostic to let guilt get in the way of a really good religious satire.
Altar Boyz plays at Bethesda Theatre, 7719 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, through Jan. 3. (301) 657-7827.