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Onyx’s ‘Altar Boyz’ irresistible

“Altar Boyz” borrows from everything. It’s “Forever Plaid,” “Godspell,” “Jersey Boys” and an ‘N Sync concert on a good night. In the hands of director Mike Scheneman and choreographer Nolan Christopher, the Off-Strip Productions/Onyx Theatre show is first-rate.

The 2005 Broadway musical has a simple premise that doesn’t begin to explain its appeal. Five young Ohio men (Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and their Jewish pal, Abraham) are on the last leg of a national tour to save souls through pop music. They’ve got the data to prove their success. A “Soul Sensor DX-12” is a screen on the left side of the house that flashes the number of people that have found God during the performance.

The Gary Adler-Michael Patrick Walker score isn’t distinctive enough to stand on its own. But the five performers are so likable and unique — and Scheneman has pitched the material so unassumingly light — that you’re eager to go along for the ride.

Mark White is lead man Matthew: innocent, determined and warm-hearted. The Las Vegas Academy grad has always been a charmer, but he’s developing greater depth and presence as an actor and vocalist. Christopher’s Mark has what feels to him a deep dark secret that he tries to hide under a layer of exuberance. Christopher’s nimble, chummy and enjoyably off-kilter.

Aron Shanley’s the hilarious dumb homeboy Luke who wears a black baseball cap with the word “GOD” in silver glitter. The only time his character seems grounded is when Shanley sings. You don’t expect such a disciplined, powerful sound to come from such an unfocused child/man. Taylor Hendricks — with his Frankie Valli falsetto and Sal Mineo build and eyes — is the group heartthrob as Abraham. He looks as if he needs protecting. But he, too, is grown-up and commanding whenever he attacks a melody.

Christopher Atup as the emotionally needy Juan doesn’t quite have the stage mastery of his peers. But he dominates the stage in a surprisingly funny chase scene.

Justin Shearin’s lighting goes a long way in creating the ambiance of a rock concert. And the three members of the onstage back-up band have such a relaxed rapport with the performers, that you’d swear they’ve been touring together for years.

“Altar Boyz” keeps its ambitions small. But within its limited scope, it’s irresistible. It’s a very hopeful Vegas debut for director Scheneman. I hope we hear from him again.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at DelValle@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.

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