I’m usually delighted when I get a chance to see a play based on a book by a Latin author, or featuring a Latin performer in a leading role. This wasn't the case with Altar Boyz, the longest running Off-Broadway comedy musical (now playing at New World Stages in New York City). The show is based on a book by Peruvian playwright Kevin Del Aguila and stars Mauricio Perez, a 24-year-old cubano in the lead role of a Latin pop star named Juan. I couldn’t help but cringe as I watched Perez’s corny and largely unsuccessful attempts at channeling one of my culture’s biggest pop icons, Enrique Iglesias. It didn't help that his hip shaking, tight-pants-wearing, winking-to-a-girl-in-the-audience Latin lover character, Juan, more closely resembles Michael Jackson (or better yet, Justin Guarini) than Enrique.
The musical is centered around a fictitious Christian boy band comprised of five small-town kids: Handsome lead singer, Matthew, effeminate gay stereotype Mark, dumb-as-rocks muscleman Luke, a Jewish guy named Abraham, and Perez (the only Latino in the group). The group members make their move from Ohio to New York City (a place where there’s allegedly more sin than anywhere else) in order to save lost souls. Throughout the show, the guys repeatedly turn to a machine on the far right side of the stage called the “Soul Sensor DX-12,” which displays the number of “burdened souls” sitting in the theater. Then the holy pop act performs a bunch of clean-cut songs containing religious themes to encourage the “lost souls” to confess their sins. Their job isn’t done until the show ends, and the Soul Sensor reads “0.”
The show’s star is the talented Michael Kadin Craig, who plays lead singer Matthew. He’s an immensely satisfying and likeable male lead with a great voice, energy for days and a major star presence. Unfortunately, the same isn’t true about Perez, who lacks the charm, grace and the voice necessary to pull off a believable Enrique. Perez’s shortcomings are as much the fault of the writers as they are his. His character is a throwback to that all-too-familiar Latin lover cliché we all know way too well, and his “Ju Know Guat I Meeng” accent is so 1980. If he wants to truly channel Enrique, I suggest buying a stick-on fake mole and going from there!
And while Altar Boyz may be populist, corny and cliché-ridden, it’s also wholesome, clean-cut fun for the whole family. After four years on the N.Y. stage, the sold-out crowd laughed their heads off and seemed to genuinely love the show. I just wasn't one of them.