intermissionmag.com

Samuel J. Friedman Theater
261 W. 47th Street, Manhattan

Choir Boy

Seen on press night, January 9, 2019

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan

(click here for the production photos)

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy, under the aegis of Manhattan Theater Club and the deft direction of Trip Cullman, opened at the Samuel J. Friedman on January 8th. A coming-of-age story, it explores the journey of a gifted young black man who hears a different drummer.

An earlier iteration of this MTC production was staged to much acclaim off-Broadway at City Center in 2013, bringing much attention to McCraney whose catalog of plays include the trilogy The Brother/ Sister Plays, Head of Passes, and Wig Out! But whether you are familiar with McCraney’s stage work or not, the current mounting of Choir Boy is a terrific opportunity to see the one-acter in a landmark venue, framed by a handsome proscenium arch, and with a heaven-sent cast (more later on this).

The play takes place at the elite all-black Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, home of the famous choir that brings joy to the community and a steady stream of donations to the institution. The action begins with Pharus (the splendid Jeremy Pope) singing the school anthem at the graduation ceremony for the senior class. During the solo, one of his classmates Bobby Marrow (J. Quinton Johnson) taunts him with homophobic slurs for his effeminate mannerisms. No, Pharus doesn’t turn the other cheek. He smolders with anger and contemplates taking revenge against the narrow-minded Bobby, who’s the Headmaster’s nephew.

Three months elapse. Pharus returns to school as a senior and the lead choir boy. Over the summer months, he has gained more confidence in himself and his budding talent and is quite ready to assume the duties of guiding the choir to the next level. The bruises to his ego from Bobby’s insults at last spring’s graduation ceremony may still smart, but he’s ready to show his classmates that there’s nothing wrong with his physical expressiveness, whether it’s “swishing” his wrists or hamming it up at choir practice. Pharus might not have pinned down his identity in toto, but he grapples with the reality of his homosexual feelings and gloriously knows that he can slip the bonds of earth when he sings.

Reminiscent of Richard Greenberg’s 2002 Take Me Out, Choir Boy focuses on the bonding of young men, not through sports, but through gospel singing. Singing, in fact, becomes a metaphor for the harmony that sadly is missing from the boys’ day-to-day interactions at school.

A degree of violence noses into the play from the opening scene. Whether its cursing, sparring, or full-fledged fisticuffs, it’s curiously less a search for power than definition. In fact, Pharus and his peers’ extended search for identity on the shifting sands of adolescence is at the core of this drama.

Jeremy Pope, making his Broadway debut as Pharus, is heaven-sent. Pope is reprising his performance from the 2013 Off Broadway production and acts effortlessly here. His Pharus is vulnerable, witty, funny, arrogant, ambitious, and very talented. Pope not only conveys the raw pain that Pharus feels as he’s being ridiculed by his peers but projects the courage that gives his character a steely backbone.

And let’s not forget the performances of Chuck Cooper and Austin Pendleton, who play the Headmaster and older teacher, respectively. Cooper comes across with the solidity of the Rock of Gibraltar and veteran actor Pendleton is the personification of a don who is utterly devoted in improving his students’ minds, even though it’s evident that he’s from a world that pre-dates electronic mail (Pendleton’s character refers to it as “i-mail”).

The supporting actors—Nicholas L. Ashe (Junior Davis), John Clay III (Anthony Justin “AJ” James), Caleb Eberhardt (David Heard), and J. Quinton Johnson (Bobby Marrow)—acquit themselves well as aspiring singers and scholars. They hold their own on stage and reveal the quirks of their characters as the plot twists and turns.

No complaints with the creative team. David Zinn’s set visually enhances the traditional values that are threaded throughout the narrative. Peter Kaczorowski’s protean lighting amplifies the tone of each scene. Camille A. Brown’s choreography captures the zest and abandon of youth. And when the physical action turns aggressive, Thomas Schall’s fight direction keeps the horseplay and more serious altercations looking authentic.

Personally, I would have liked to listen to more traditional spirituals and original music (by Jason Michael Webb and Fitz Patton), given the excellent tonsils of the young performers in the company. One of the play’s best moments, in fact, is when the prep students softly croon the song "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." Listening to the rise and fall of their collective voices, one can sense the deep loneliness and longing of these adolescents as they chart their own courses in a bewildering—and sometimes dangerous--world.

Choir Boy is McCraney’s first bow on Broadway. McCraney, who won the MacArthur Foundation Award in 2013, is a prolific author who investigates the African American experience through a contemporary and non-sentimental lens. Indeed, he is a stage and screen scribe to watch and wish well.

Now extended through February 24th, 2019

At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, at 261 West 47th Street, Manhattan

For tickets and more information, phone telecharge 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400 or visit www.choirboybroadway.com

Running time:  95 minutes with no intermission

Reviewed at press performance on January 9th



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