Altar Boyz

NC Theatre
Through July 21

Altar Boyz is one of those theatrical endeavors that tries to have it both ways. Since so many of the jokes embedded in its patter and lyrics are subtle enough to go unnoticed by the more credulous of the devout, is it a send-up of overproduced mainstream Christian music (and the culture and money that supports it), or the thing itself, accessorized with a comic fig leaf just big enough to placate nonbelievers?

Whatever the answer to that question might be, this next-generation update to the Nunsense franchise situates a never-less-than-earnest boy-band quartet at the end of their “Raise the Praise” national tour. Gary Adler and Michael Walker’s tunes touch the predicted pop music bases, in straight-ahead rockers like the title track, rap in “The Miracle Song,” romantic solos like “Everybody Fits” and even heavy metal in “Number 918.”

At times their lyrics make mostly inconspicuous fun of their evangelistic bent. In “Something About You,” a torch-number tribute to teen sexual abstinence, Matthew, the group’s leader (a confident Marshal Kennedy Carolan), sensitively croons to a woman from the audience, “Girl, you make me want to wait.” In the putative dance hit, “Rhythm in Me,” the boys rhyme, “God put sinners down in Hell ’cause they did not improve/ God put the rhythm in me so I could bust a move!”

The least savory moments in this endeavor come toward the end, in the song “Epiphany.” After a gay but apparently undisclosed Mark (Patrick Elliott) has been clearly pining for his bandmate Matthew throughout the show, Mark sings about his closeted state before he summons the courage to come out … as a Catholic. Wink, wink.

That came after the audience found an inordinate amount of amusement when Juan, the apparently exotic Hispanic character, simply translated several lines into Spanish.

I have little doubt that in the future, Sony (or a shadier firm, further in the realm of black ops) will develop a device like this show’s fictive Soul Sensor, a spiritual lie detector, capable of discerning an audience’s level of sincerity. But in a conservative theocracyone just a little to the right of the one presently in session in Raleighit would likely be used for matters more pressing than judging the success of a rock concert.

Reasons enough, all told, to feel a chill instead of chuckle at a spectacle of slickly marketed, big-bucks religionone that never permits quite enough daylight on its subject for us to be sure of what it’s really laughing at.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Holy shtick.”