'Altar Boyz' set on keeping the faith of boy bands
By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
By Wayne Harada
As a kid growing up in Littleton, Colo., Jesse JP Johnson used to dance and sing in front of the TV, mimicking boy bands.
At 21, Johnson is living the dream as a cast member of the first national tour of "Altar Boyz," the off-Broadway hit that makes its Island debut at the Hawai'i Theatre on Wednesday.
"I've always been in musical theater," said Johnson, who recalls doing his first public show at the age of 3 or 4. His mom and grandmother were fans of musicals "and Mom put me in theater in kind of a way to get me out of the house — because I was a bit spacey and wild," he said. "I was always into something, in a good way, and always in my own world. And I was such a ham."
Those attributes helped him through a performing-arts school in Denver and got him on a touring production of "Grease," which played the Blaisdell Concert Hall with Frankie Avalon.
Now, Johnson — as Luke, one of five hunks with charm to spare — is in the hysterical musical comedy about a fictitious Christian boy band. Think 'N Sync at a church revival.
"I love the show. It's a mixture of everything, and something a family can see together," Johnson said. Initially a swing to Luke, Matthew and Mark, as well as dance captain, Johnson snagged his role when the original actor walked six days after rehearsals began.
The tongue-in-cheek show includes a Soul Sensor DX-12, a device that counts unsaved souls in the audience. The characters' mission: Bring the count to zero by the final curtain.
Besides Johnson, the band includes Matthew Buckner (resident hottie Matthew); Ryan J. Ratliff (Mark, who has a thing for Matthew); Jay Garcia (Juan, who adds Latino spice); and Nick Blaemire (Snoop Doggish — and Jewish — Abraham).
We asked Johnson Five Questions:
Q. Before joining "Altar Boyz," what did you think of boy bands?
A. Actually, I've always wanted to be part of a boy band, especially when I was younger — it was New Kids on the Block. But 'N Sync and The Backstreet Boys have been an inspiration to me; they were guys who sang and danced and were young, and everyone watched. I wanted to be a part of it, though my interest was always musical theater. ... Being in this show hits both realms.
Q. If Matthew is Justin Timberlake and Mark is Lance Bass, who did you model your Luke character on?
A. I would say A.J. (MacLean, of The Backstreet Boys) was the closest. He's always more ghettolike, emulating the street dancer. But the biggest influence when I was younger might have been Donnie Wahlberg from New Kids. And maybe even a little Vanilla Ice.
Q. Are you a hip-hopper like Luke?
A. I really like all styles of music, including hip-hop. I keep my ears and eyes open, but I mostly listen to acoustic, acoustic pop and R&B. Now, I really like Jason Mraz. When I was younger, I played instruments — guitar and piano — but I stopped that when I was focusing on singing and dancing.
Q. This is the first national tour. Do you feel like you're sort of on a religious crusade, to raise the rafters, have fun with the twist on boy bands and soul-saving?
A. Yeah, I was raised Catholic. Helps me with the jokes in the show. The show is based on the brotherhood, friendship and played out through the relationship we (as actors) have on stage. Almost a religious experience, when you put your faith in something like this — and the audience responds. We're the first group to do a tour, so it's been like our own creation, building the relationship, among cast and the audience.
Q. In this era of strident politics and war, how important is faith in your livelihood?
A. I am still Christian, and faith is what helps me through everything, especially in theater, which is a cutthroat business. Faith keeps me focused; it's part of my life, on and off stage. Before every show, we have a secret handshake, imagining what a boy band would have. We form a circle and say a prayer, giving encouragement to each other. With all our talents, we're all lucky and work somewhat like a serious boy band. Altarholics have been a real boost, a demonstration of faith.
Reach Wayne Harada at firstname.lastname@example.org.