Heaven knows there's been a lack of hip satire on the New York stage, but this season has seen the hip-swiveling pop of the faux Christian boy band Altar Boyz in their eponymous show at Dodger Stages. The show is presented as the band's New York City finale of their national tour.
While both Christian music and boy bands are ripe for roasting (Christopher Guest, are you listening?), Altar Boyz walks a very fine line of ribbing its subject while still respecting it or, as the Boyz would say, “giving props to God.” The Boyz are devout, but that doesn't mean they're not goofy, sexy, or racked with their own issues. The band is comprised of Matthew (Scott Porter), Mark (Tyler Maynard), Luke (Andy Karl), Juan (Ryan Duncan), and Abraham (David Josefsberg), the group's token Jewish member. Another star of the show is Natasha Katz's manic lighting, adding as much excitement to the show as the five stars rocking, rapping, and busting moves to Gary Adler's and Michael Patrick Walker's energizing tunes that seem more at home on a Top 40 radio station than in a theatre.
With its loving homage to boy bands, Katz found that she was not working on a typical theatrical piece. “From a conceptual aspect, the Altar Boyz was a very hard show to peg,” she explains. “There were two big issues with this show. First, these guys don't have a lot of money, supposedly; they're just a small band trying to make it in the business. But on the other hand, we're in a theatre, and we had to keep it as theatrical as we could. So every day, we tried to figure out how far we could push what kind of show these guys would have from a lighting point of view.”
Throughout the show, it was mentioned that Luke was only in the group because he drove the van, so that gave Katz the idea that this would be one of those acts that would have a small lighting rig that would fit in the back of a truck, but she wanted to push it theatrically past what the band would really have. “At one point, we talked about putting a big circular truss overhead because maybe they would do something like that,” she explains. “The one thing a small band would have is a good sound system and a good lighting system. Finally, the set designer, Anna Louizos, decided that the boys just installed themselves into the theatre for the night, and that's the look of the show — they just came to town with their truck and set up.”
Louizos' set design takes into account the smaller venue of Stage 4 at Dodger Stages and created a set that could feasibly have been used in a variety of venues around the country. The set is nestled in a proscenium wall of broken concrete blocks that further adds to the energy and propels the show. The main set pieces could be from a concert tour from ‘NSYNC, Madonna, or any other act that lives out of a suitcase. Aside from the two bright silver trusses that flank the proscenium, there is an elevated walkway across the rear of the set to allow for entrances, exits, and even mad dashes. Behind the walkway are a series of metallic mesh screens.
Katz decided against moving lights and went to the “old fashioned route,” as she was walking a fine line between looking too flashy and looking amateurish. “That line is harder than I thought it would be, and it played into the cueing as well,” she says. “When we first cued the show at this theatre, we had many more light cues, and we kept paring it down over and over. It's the same thing you hear time and again on these shows: We needed to just take these boys in and understand who they were and stop with all the flashy stuff. Once that was finally established, then we could do that boy-band/rock-it-out thing.” Boy bands had a big influence on Katz's designs, as director Stafford Arima handed her videos of ‘NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, and Madonna to get an idea of what these boys would aspire to. “We had to realize that that's their dream to have a big production number type show, but they could never have that, so what do they do but just flash some lights!”
Most of the lighting fixtures are not exactly tucked away in various lighting positions, but rather, they are part of the action. “We put a lot of lights on the floor because that was very much in the vocabulary of the boy bands and the flashing lights in our faces,” Katz says. “We have these 9-lighters — a movie fixture with nine bulbs inside — that a lot of bands use. It's really bright, which was how they are used with a lot of rock and roll bands. Actually, a lot of the show is an homage: silver trussing on the sides, exposed lights, fixtures on the floor.” There are also five birdy footlights for each of the boys along the edge of the deck as well as PAR cans and ACLs, popular rock-and-roll fixtures for more than three decades.
BOYZ AND BEES
Altar Boyz is not the only satirical hit Katz is working on; she also did the design for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee that transferred from the Second Stage Theatre to Broadway's Circle in the Square. She found herself using several of the same elements for Boyz that she used for Bee. Although she was against having moving lights in the Boyz rig, as she did in Bee, she used five ETC Source Fours® in City Theatrical AutoYokes®. “I just started using them [in Spelling Bee], and now I'm really loving them,” she says. “They were only used to light their faces, since we only had one followspot, and the angle was really flat [from the followspot position]. But with the AutoYokes, you can follow them and get a better angle, which also means that there's a lot of cueing too.” The Source Fours were each outfitted with Wybron Coloram II scrollers.
As in Spelling Bee, Katz found that it is easier to coordinate looks when all of the color temperatures are similar. Therefore, using the Source Fours in AutoYokes made adjusting the color palette easier, since she was working with all incandescent fixtures. “There's something so refreshing about that and not having to deal with the color temperature with so many moving lights,” she says. “It's very human being-friendly that way.”
Also, as in Spelling Bee, Katz controlled the lights from an ETC Obsession® 1500 console due to budgetary concerns. “We have hundreds and hundreds of chases in the show, and the whole screen [on the console] goes red sometimes because it's trying to do them all,” she explains. “There is something so cool about it. We really pushed the board to do things it was not really designed to do, but it held up. There's something great about that: it's like getting your hands in the soil and really planting your flowers.”
For a 90-minute show, Altar Boyz has a litany of cues, due to the music which, with its pop and rock infusion, lent itself well to cueing it. “There's so many places to put light cues in that type of music,” Katz says. “Add to it the choreography, and the moves are so specific. The moves are based on music, so the light cues become based on the music in a very organic way. It also gives you complete permission to do whatever you want on some levels. But it took us a long time to get there and keep those cues nice and buoyant and clean with different looks every time. I've done other shows with a rock score, and there is something about the more contemporary rock music where so much of it is pushed by a beat, and it changes the whole dynamic of what lighting does because we get pushed by that same beat.” Although it took a lot of time to get each look, Katz credits her associate LD, Yael Lubetzky, who did more work than normal since Katz was away part of the time.
Since most of the set was silver, the show had a very metallic look — like a boy band concert is supposed to have — especially in terms of color. “That metallic set takes light in a certain way,” Katz explains. “Even in the black background all night, the palette is somewhat limited; it's only six or seven colors, and they're each really bold, so you can go from one bold look to another.”
Katz credits the bold color quick changes to the Wybron scrollers. “The color scrollers are set up in a way that there would be a saturated red next to saturated blue next to saturated green,” she says, “because sometimes you want to go from red to blue, but it's all the way on the other side of the scroll. You can't predict it, but you can only hope against hope that you've done it right. So with the red next to the blue, I was able to go from one big look to another big look with the colors right next to each other. We have a lot of old fashioned equipment doing a contemporary job.”
The mesh screens at the rear of the set were a prime canvas for Katz's limited use of color. They were front lit by the scrollers as well as lightboxes lighting the screens from within in red, white, and blue. “So throughout the whole show, it was a big mixture of backlighting those screens and frontlighting them. Sometimes, you could backlight them in a deep blue and then add a lesser deep blue to the front, and it would get a kind of dimension to it that was quite beautiful,” Katz explains. “With all that silver up there, all sorts of color combinations work in different ways than they might if it was a different surface; you can put a dark blue next to dark green, and it looks great.”
The Altar Boyz have been blessed — not only have the reviews been praising the faithful five, but Katz's lighting has given the fictional upstart boy band a bit of street cred. Believe it or not, Altar Boyz is Katz's first foray into rock concert lighting, that is unless you count the years she spent operating the lights at CBGB's in the East Village when she was starting out. “It is a love letter to the dream of boy band lighting,” she says. “There's so much goodwill from everyone in that show, and I think that's what audiences are responding to.” Amen!