When Choir Boy, the coming of age story from Tarell Alvin McCraney that predates his Oscar-winning, co-written screenplay for Moonlight, finds its sweet spots – and they are many – the drama, the humor and the music take off for parts unknown. This is a play that, like its unstoppable main character, never quits reaching for the high note, even when perfection is beyond its grasp.
Set in a prestigious prep school for African American boys, Choir Boy – a Manhattan Theatre Club production opening tonight at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre – grapples with questions of pride and shame, sexual identity, legacies and duty. Memorably performed (particularly by its young star Jeremy Pope), its frequent choir songs beautifully sung by the entire cast, the production is another fine addition to director Trip Cullman’s resume (his Lobby Hero was one of Broadway’s 2018 bests).
Still, Choir Boy shouldn’t be oversold, a temptation given the playwright’s Oscar-winning involvement in the director-writer Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film Moonlight (based on McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue). Choir Boy‘s flaws are real – hastily resolved story arcs, unsurprising character turns, talky bluntness – even if they can momentarily hide behind the production’s lovelier aspects. Overpraise would do little but raise expectations that this occasional gem doesn’t always fulfill.
Best, then, to appreciate what Choir Boy and its wonderful cast does well. First and foremost, there’s Pope, the young actor and choir boy of the title.
Pope plays Pharus Jonathan Young, a naturally flamboyant and vocally gifted choir member at the elite Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys. Pharus isn’t exactly openly gay, but he’s smart enough to know he’s not fooling anyone. Despite the entreaties from a sympathetic if gruff headmaster (Chuck Cooper), Pharus is no more inclined to quiet his outsize personal presentation than he is to hold back the glorious singing talent he’s been given.
The play’s drama begins with an epithet: During an important performance, as Pharus takes his solo, his bullying nemesis and fellow choir boy Bobby Marrow (J. Quinton Johnson) whispers a just-loud-enough homophobic slur that stuns Pharus into momentary (and song-ruining) silence. Despite this lapse – Pharus’, not Bobby’s – in the choir’s rigorous performance code, the talented Pharus will soon take his rightful place as choir leader.
Pharus’ uses his newfound power to oust the troublesome Bobby from the ranks, despite Bobby’s familial connection to the headmaster.
However justified, Bobby’s booting from the choir, and subsequent plans of revenge, set both the play and its cast of characters in motion. Among the young men suddenly forced to choose sides are Pharus’ loyal and loving (and straight) roommate A.J. (John Clay III), Bobby’s goofy mini-me pal Junior (Nicholas L. Ashe), Headmaster Marrow himself, and, crucially, choir member David (Caleb Eberhardt), a poorer-than-the-others scholarship student whose newfound interest in religion masks deeper conflicts that the audience will grasp much sooner than serves the play.
Into the mix (and onto David Zinn’s attractive, efficient school academy set) comes Mr. Pendleton (played by Austin Pendleton), a highly regarded professor who comes out of retirement as a favor to the headmaster, agreeing to teach a cream-of-the-crop class on critical thinking and, for reasons neither clear nor convincing, take over supervision of the choir. Mr. Pendleton is white, lending Choir Boy a sort of inverse To Sir, With Love quality as teacher and students attempt to cross boundaries.
As likable as Pendleton the actor is, his Pendleton the character doesn’t always work. So familiar is his disheveled, comic schlemiel persona (established all the way back in 1972’s screwball homage What’s Up, Doc?) that he can get laughs from the slightest gesture or intonation – including once, during the reviewed performance – that was entirely unintentional and killed the momentum of a pivotal dramatic moment (the audience should have known better, but still). It doesn’t help that McCraney awkwardly introduces the character with a silly racial joke that feels thoroughly false coming from the old, staunchly liberal professor’s mouth.
Still, inauthentic moments like that, as well as some fixable pacing problems, do no real damage to this heartfelt drama. More serious is an overall lack of nuance or character development: The bully states his anti-gay position early on, and changes not a whit. The heterosexual roommate is loving and accepting, and the headmaster is supportive if more than a little embarrassed by the whole gay thing (“tighten up,” he advises Pharus early on, “so that people don’t assume too much…Keep ‘em guessing…at least so they can’t ask.”)
And as charismatic as Pope is in his star-making role of Pharus, he’d be even more impressive if the character was required to grow in some way, or develop. Pharus is as self-confident, if often sad, at the beginning as he is at the end. Here he is well before the intermission-less play’s halfway point, standing up to the headmaster:
I’m grateful. I am! But should I be more humble and, what, groveling, right? “Thank Drew for letting me live along side these good other strapping mean behind boys who don’t have no problem displaying all kinds of bad behavior, and ill will towards me” but if I remove one of them from my presence so that I can think long enough, without someone drawing attention to my swish or my wrist, I need to be put down? Put out! Something about the way I’m standing? When can I just show up and do my job and everyone applaud? Is that allowed at Drew? Is there anyone looking out for me?
Narrative issues notwithstanding, Choir Boy is often thrilling, especially when its young ensemble gathers for the a capella spirituals sprinkled throughout (Jason Michael Webb handles music direction, arrangements and original music; Camille A. Brown is the choreographer). With one or two exceptions, the songs are dropped seamlessly and unobtrusively into the drama, and the cast, accompanying itself with claps, stomps and thigh-slaps, soars, and takes Choir Boy – and us – along for the flight.
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