The holidays are a hard time of the year for discriminating grownups who like to go to the theater but who would rather have their eyes gouged out with an awl than sit through yet another revival of A Tuna Christmas. Kids' shows and school matinees abound, as do wholesome holiday extravaganzas like A Christmas Carol at Theatre Memphis and Germantown's production of Madeline's Christmas, a bizarre musical about Catholic nuns who befriend a sorcerer and let him hang out at their school. Fortunately, there are some promising alternatives.
TheatreWorks presents audiences with a chance to sample a variety of work from some of Memphis' best small companies. The curtain goes up on SampleWorks December 14th and features work by Playwright's Forum, Our Own Voice, Emerald Theatre Company, Voices of the South, New Moon Theatre, and Project: Motion. The $25 ticket includes a wine and snack reception.
Playback Memphis, a group that creates spontaneous theatricals based on stories told by audience members, is hosting a performance and fund-raiser on December 17th.
"Wonderland" is the wintry theme for Voices of the South's annual grab bag Pre-sent/Pres-ent, which opens at TheatreWorks on December 12th and continues the following weekend. If you've gone a year without visiting Sister Myotis, Steve Swift's deep-fried church lady, Pre-sent/Pres-ent always provides a good way to catch up while atoning for your sins.
While on the topic of sin, Circuit Playhouse's tight production of Altar Boyz makes a perfectly irreverent escape from the holiday jollies.
Frequent guest director Scott Ferguson gets all the fun assignments. He's choreographed funny werewolf shtick for The Mystery of Irma Vep and created an otherworldly disco a go-go for Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens. This time around, the Chicago-based director has come to town to mount Altar Boyz, which, while totally entertaining, isn't quite as fun or as naughty as it sounds.
The cult musical successfully, if too gently, sends up pop-culture phenomena like boy bands and Christian pop as well as older feel-good touring groups like Up With People. The Altar Boyz are the muscle-bound Power Team of tight bubblegum harmony and tighter pants. Only instead of saving souls for Christ by performing feats of strength and endurance like the Power Team would, the Boyz drive out the devil with dope choreography, sexually confused testimony, and weird technological gadgets. In fact, the Boyz have a futuristic gizmo that measures sinfulness, and they can't stop popping and locking until every person in the theater has been washed in the blood of the lamb.
The physically demanding script is an intimate showcase for actors who have to convincingly talk the talk and moon the walk, and everybody in the Circuit cast delivers with polished street moves and old-school hip-hop chops that pay homage to Digital Underground.
The four evangelists are Matthew (David Ryan), a dude-ly Timberlake clone, rocking a sporty vest and tie; Mark (Carson Turner), a sexually ambiguous answer to Lance Bass right down to his advanced interest in space travel; Luke (Stephen Andrew Parker), a lovable but punchy screw-up who just got out of rehab; and Juan (Alvaro Francisco Barned), who comes off as a border-town reflection of Prince, do-rag and all. To make things absurdly multicultural, there's also Abraham (Bruce Huffman), a one-man Beastie Boys in a bright-red yarmulke.
Being Jewish, Abraham wasn't sure he should bring sexy back for the Lord, but after hearing the voice of God (a typecast Bill Andrews), he started humping the air and beatboxing for righteousness.
The biggest problem with Altar Boyz is that it tries to be satire with a heart, and satire works best when it's heartless. That doesn't mean that the show's writers — Gary Adler, Michael Patrick Walker, and Kevin Del Aguila — haven't scored a few direct hits. The multiple entendres are thick, and it's hard to resist a rock anthem about exorcism called "The Power of Christ Compels You."
Altar Boyz isn't going to change many lives, but Jesus Pacheco's spot-on choreography is well worth the cost of a ticket.
Through December 21st