ST. PETERSBURG — When the five cast members of Altar Boyz get together, you can get a pretty good debate going on which was the best boy band.
"Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync pretty much raised me,'' Nick Cearley says.
"The Backstreet Boys' I Want It That Way is the greatest pop song of all time. There's no way you can dispute that,'' Dick Baker says.
"But 'N Sync was amazing live,'' Brendan Cataldo says. "They put on great shows. They could have been in Vegas.''
These guys know what they're talking about. Not only are they all in their 20s and grew up mimicking videos by New Kids on the Block (the group's late period, anyway), Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync on MTV, but they're also playing a boy band in Altar Boyz, this year's edition of American Stage in the Park.
But their band has a twist: Altar Boyz, with music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, is about a Christian (except for one Jew) pop quintet, performing its final concert on the "Raise the Praise '09'' tour to save souls. With lyrics like "Jesus called me on my cell phone,'' a heartfelt ballad about sexual abstinence before marriage and a rap number on Jesus and his "12-member crew,'' the show treads a fine line between spoof and straight-ahead religious pop.
"What I like about it is that it does not spoof Christianity or organized religion,'' Bradley Vile says. "It really spoofs the idea of combining a boy band with Christian music.''
Altar Boyz, which features a four-piece rock band, is set up in the style of a concert, like another show of singing lads, Forever Plaid.
"I think it is Forever Plaid for a new generation,'' says director Steven Flaa, who has performed in and directed Forever Plaid. "It has a really similar structure. It's not just a revue, not just a bunch of guys singing. They're very distinctly defined characters.''
The five Altar Boyz — Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and Abraham — mirror the archetypical characters in pop boy bands: There is the heartthrob, the bad boy, the "sensitive'' one who is probably gay, the sexy Latin lover and so on.
Flaa's main task in rehearsal has been to keep cast members sincere about their characters. "No matter how funny a show is, it's always funnier if it's real,'' he says. "A bunch of caricatures would be tiresome. The affection between these guys — as actors as well as friends — is palpable and really important to the show.''
It will be interesting to see how some of the satirical songs about religion go down in the park. Cataldo, who plays Luke, was in a production of Altar Boyz in Buffalo, N.Y., that was a hit, but not everybody who attended took kindly to the humor.
"There were a couple of times when audience members walked out,'' he says. "Like during the rap number, The Miracle Song, about Jesus and his miracles. But that's bound to happen. You can't please everybody.''
"If you cannot have a sense of humor about your religion, you will have a problem with it,'' Flaa says.
Actually, some of the biggest fans of Altar Boyz are people who saw it with church groups, judging from comments and pictures on altarholics.com, the blog set up by the off-Broadway production.
"There's really nothing offensive or denigrating to Christianity,'' Flaa says. "It's a very warm and loving spoof.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.