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The Jewish Star of Altar Boyz: An Interview with Dennis Moench
February 21, 2006 - by Maya Cantu
He's that adorable paradox: the Jewish Altar Boy.
In the satiric yet inspirational show about a Catholic boy band on its Raise the Praise tour, Dennis Moench plays the fresh-faced, gawkily charming Abraham. Sure, his upbringing might have been a little more kosher than that of fellow Altar Boyz Luke, Matthew, Mark and Juan, but after hearing the voice of G.O.D, Abe can't help but to feel the Holy Spirit and to express it with as much joy as the rest of the Boyz.
The ephiphany occurs after Abe gives bad boy Luke some improperly-tutored homework inside the Altar Boyz' small-town Ohio church. He begins to pen lyrics for a hymn that Matthew is writing when the voice of
the Creator--G.O.D. Himself--floods the church and tattoos its message on Abe's soul.
Moench feels that in many ways, Abe fits the image of the "nice Jewish boy," or as the show has it, a "Neil Diamond in the rough." "Abe is everything one would think of as the typical Jewish boy, even his curiosity with Catholicism. What Jewish kid doesn't want to have a Christmas tree at some point in his life? I think it is important when playing him not to think of him as the outsider, but as a hero... sort of a 'Super-Jew.' He is very proud to be representin' his religion and you see that from the very beginning in the opening number; all of the boys introduce themselves, and after 'Abraham!' they shout 'He's Jewish!' He's a star. Perhaps a star named David but a star nonetheless."
While it may seem a sudden transition from Judaism to Catholicism, Moench doesn't particularly see Abe as being spiritually confused. "When G.O.D. speaks to the Boyz he is definitely shocked, but Abe has a lot of faith and he follows through with the divine design. I think the combination of his strong faith in the man with the plan and the bond he has with the other Boyz is what compels him to save souls across the country. That is the key to understanding the Boyz I think. They are all on a mission."
Moench feels that Abe's religious sentiments become increasingly Catholic while not necessarily betraying the religion under which he was raised. "Well, what is brilliant about the writing is that Abraham never says anything that conflicts with his own religion except for a few choruses which are sung by all the Boyz. All of his solos stay true to his faith. Some can argue that he is being a "fair-weather Jew" by singing in those choruses of 'Christ, how'd you do that' and 'Jesus called me on my cell phone', but I think that Abraham is primarily concerned with saving the souls of his audience, and you know everyone out there isn't Jewish... well maybe in New York," he jokes. "But regardless, you can't leave Jesus out."
Moench feels that one of the reasons the show is so universally appealing is because of its tolerant acceptance of different races, beliefs, and denominations. "All five characters are so diverse themselves that they speak of tolerance without having to say anything," he remarks. "As far as mentioning other religions (besides Judaism and Catholicism), there's not much. At one point Mark does throw in that even agnostics can change their minds and he also speaks of the 'Episcopalian thugs' that tormented him when he was younger, so there seems to be some sort of conflict there but it's all in good fun." And "good fun" can certainly describe "Everybody Fits," Abe's number in which the Altar Boyz take out Lambchop-like puppets with a special one for Abe that resembles the rabbi of the flock.
Moench, who states that he has "too much" in common with Abe, does not share a religion with the character. "I'm not... but I think that being cast in Jewish roles all your life almost makes you an 'honorary Jew'... at least
that's how most describe me."
He also played a Jewish boy--Schlomo--in his off-Broadway debut, Fame, which he first performed at the North Shore Music Theatre and then at off-Broadway's Little Shubert Theatre (as Fame on 42nd Street) . Perhaps that show's title proved somewhat prophetic; Moench is now in the spotlight for what is only his second major New York show.
Of his early success in Altar Boyz (a show with quite a sizable fanbase), Moench states, "I have to say that going to school in the city for four years made any sort of adjustments a lot easier. I graduated from NYU in '03 so a lot has happened in the past two-and-a-half years. I know a lot of actors in the business though, and they help me keep my head on straight. The challenge for me with going into Altar Boyz was being a replacement (for David Josefsberg), which is not an easy thing to do. It's difficult to replace another actor who is extremely talented to begin with and who began working on the role years before me. It felt like I was adopting his already grown-up child. Scary stuff!"
While enrolled in NYU's prestigious CAP21 program, Moench performed in numerous shows--from chestnuts like On the Town to more unusual shows like Goonies: The Musical . "This really talented and witty student wrote a musical based on the TV show 'Saved by the Bell' and it was so well received by the student population that Goonies: The Musical followed shortly afterwards and I jumped on the wagon. It was a hilarious spoof of a show that ended up being produced in one of the 'black box' studios at the John Houseman. I got to play one of the Fratelli brothers who, yes, had a song called "We Hit Because We Love". I think they tried to get more producers involved, but there was an issue with rights to the movie," he laughs.
The actor has also appeared in a number of workshops (such as one for the sex ed musical Swimming Upstream ) and in regional productions of musicals. Of course, performing in musicals is something he's been doing all his life. "I was always musical growing up, but one day some buddies of mine from chorus said they needed more 'townspeople' in the middle school play, so I agreed to join the drama club to help them out. And I loved it! From that point I started auditioning for the school shows and lots of community theatre productions and just took off from there."
Musicals are Moench's passion, but he's no novice to other forms of performance. Don't be surprised if he ends up playing Hamlet one day; he's already played Cassio in Othello and the title role (as well as one of the witches) in Macbeth. The actor played the latter role while studying at the famed Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. "Well, I do prefer doing musical theatre because I love to sing and dance, but when I perform and when I see theatre, my priority is in the acting," he comments. "I think that doing Shakespeare really challenged my acting chops in a way that a lot of musicals can't, and I would love to do that again."
Moench feels that his RADA training helped him to sharpen and broaden his technique, as well as to observe another tradition of acting. "The American acting students were always told by our British professors that we had a lot of emotional depth, but that it somtimes got in the way of the poetry, whereas most of their own students tended to have a great sense of poetry, but lacked emotional depth. I'm not so sure that this is true, but regardless, RADA really taught me to be less selfish in my acting and pay more attention to what the writer wants... to make my acting choices with that in mind," he says.
As for his future plans, Moench is planning to venture further into TV and film (and already has credits in both under his belt). He'd also love to do more plays to "polish the old 'acting tool box.'" In the meantime, the versatile young actor is having a blast at playing an Abe who stays honest to himself. When Moench sings "I Believe," the Altar Boyz finale for which Abe has finally finished the lyrics, the actor and character just fit.
1--At Kids' Night on Broadway with fellow Altar Boyz (clockwise) James Royce Edwards, Clyde Alves (former Fame cast member), Tyler Maynard and Scott Porter.
2--In Fame at North Shore Music Theatre
3--Dennis Moench, photo by Jamie Kirchner
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