Interview: Bert Bernardi talks about those “Altar Boyz” – a sinful delight opening at the Theatre Barn

The Altar Boyz! From L. to R.: Tom Garutto, Eddie Maldando, Trey Compton, Barry Shafrin and Steven Cardona are the Altar Boyz.

Once wholesome innocents from Ohio, the Altar Boyz didn’t remain that way for long once they left home. Director Bert Bernardi who is directing the Theatre Barn production in New Lebanon, NY admits he is a big fan of the show, and he certainly knows musicals having directed dozens of them over his impressive career. Altar Boyz plays from August 12 to 22. It might just blow the roof off of the Theatre Barn with its five performers and a backup band of three musicians.

We chatted with Bernardi about the show, his cast, and how local audiences might enjoy this new kind of musical with lots of contemporary music and dance that is based on break dancing and boy band choreography. He first saw Altar Boyz in 2005 (it ran off Broadway for almost a decade) and was totally smitten. As former Artistic Director of the Theatre Barn, “I had always hoped I would have the chance to direct it one day.

“I’ve been clearly inspired by that original production–the energy, the power and the innocent delivery of the comedy. And I am pleased to report that the cast here at The Theater Barn is every bit as good as those original five ‘boyz.’  (Cheyenne Jackson was one of the originals.) They are all triple-threats. They act, they sing (boy, do they sing), and they dance up a storm. And of course they all have that boyish Teen Idol look and personality!

Altar Boyz could be described as a cross between “Nunsense” and “Forever Plaid.”  It certainly has the light-hearted bouncy fun of both of these shows. Better yet, it has a great musical score with some of the funniest lyrics you’ll ever hear. And just like “Nunsense,” there is no need to be catholic to enjoy the show. Think about you have to be a cat to enjoy “Cats”? Or a demon barber to enjoy “Sweeney Todd?”

The Altar Boyz (l to r) Trey Compton (Matthew), Barry Shafrin (Mark), Tom Garutto (Luke), Eddie Maldonado (Juan), Steven Cardona (Abraham).

Bernardi likes to describe the show in mainstream audience terms, but that doesn’t fully capture the high energy, sharp parody, sinfully spectacular dancing, and irreverent humor of this spoof. It’s about a heavenly guy-group that is adored by audiences and out to have a good time rather than save souls.

With an extraordinary mix of side-splitting songs by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, they are convincing enough to be played on MTV. Then there are the uncontrollable laughs and lighthearted fun contained in the book by Kevin Del Aguila. They combine in this award-winning and totally original new musical for 90 minutes of just plain fun.

The Altar Boyz are trying to save the world one screaming fan at a time. Their pious pop act, including lyrics like “Girl You Make Me Wanna Wait” and “Jesus Called Me On My Cell Phone,” worked wonders on the Ohio bingo-hall-and-pancake-breakfast circuit. But when fate brings them to New York, will the boyz take a bite out of the forbidden apple? With angelic voices, sinfully spectacular dancing and a touching story, Altar Boyz has succeeded in rocking the masses of all denominations.

Bernardi who has worked with the Theatre Barn for quite a while now says: “I don’t think there has ever been anything before with this style of energy and dance. Ever. Godspell might come close to it, but this is really athletic dancing. After all, you have five fired-up guys inspired by break dancing and nonstop boy band choreography, Best of all you get to feel all that energy up close, and the precision with which they deliver the dances is remarkable.

“The five boys are so charming that they will woo the senior set, even as they make the hearts of teens and ‘tweens skip a couple of beats. ” The Berkshire-Columbia County LGBT community will also love the subplot as Mark falls in love with Matthew. In the end, “The simple, heart-warming message of love and harmony is what The Altar Boyz preach in their twelve winning musical numbers,” said Bernardi.

Bert Bernardi

I wondered if Bernardi had picked this show for the Theatre Barn. “No, I producer Joan Phelps takes the credit for that. She always selects interesting and eclectic titles to make up each summer season. While many summer theaters around the country are doing “Oklahoma” or  “Sound of Music,” The Theater Barn is doing Urinetown or Zanna, Don’t.  The audiences here are pretty advanced in their tastes. Happily this year, she selected Altar Boyz and asked me to come along as director.

“I have directed about 20 shows here and I am the former Artistic Director of The Theater Barn. Though I no longer hold that title, I love to come back to New Lebanon each summer and do a show—its a very special place to work, thanks to Joan and her husband Abe.”

Christmas Pantomime

One of the unusual things that Bernardi has done is to bring the traditional English “panto” to life. It is a cherished British Christmas tradition, as big a deal as Santa Claus is here. Bernardi has mounted American productions elsewhere, but it is remains to be done in the Berkshires. Properly promoted, it could be a budget balancing cash cow, too. It is not really a mime show at all, but a  music hall revue of sketches, songs, and ridiculous characters meeting up with each other. Imagine Goldilocks meeting Auntie Mame. Many of the female  roles are played by men, and vice versa.

Says Bernardi: “I would love somebody in the Berkshires to take a chance on British panto, to bring the community a different holiday tradition similar to the one in the U.K. With a mix of adults and children in the cast, it is the perfect sort of festive and funny show that has decades of tradition behind it.”  It certainly would be a fresh change from the sometimes repetitious Nutcrackers and Scrooges we see year after year. “There is one restriction, I have to get to play the dame, whether Glinda in a Wizard of Oz parody, or my takeoff on Dame Edna, a homage in which we get to  hurl dozens of gladiolas at the audience.”

Performances of Altar Boyz take place from August 12-22 on Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm and 8:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $24 except Sunday matinees which are $22. For tickets call 518-794-8989. The Theatre Barn is located at 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY 12125.  They have a simple website with season and subscription information.

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