By Stanford Friedman
Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy is a layered and muscular one-act with music, drama, comedy and a loaded title. Yes, the students of the Charles R. Drew Prep School do sing in excellent harmony, and when they dance they dance as one. But when they are not making music, they push, pull and punch at each other emotionally as well as physically. Indeed they are boys, in the sense that they have, or had, parents; though here their mothers are only distant voices reached by phone at designated call times. But they are boys on the cusp, dealing with their changing bodies and testosterone rushes while trying to figure out the role of spirituality in their lives. If one of the performed numbers, Boys to Men by New Edition, is a little too on the nose, nearly every other moment of this unique play, first staged off Broadway in 2013, buzzes with tension or glides into joy.
Pharus (Jeremy Pope) is an ambitious teen and head of the school’s choir. He is also gay. In the limited, fantasy-driven canon of shows about choirs (Glee, the Pitch Perfect movies) that is a quality to celebrate. Such is not the case here as Pharus is harassed by a bullying fellow choir member, Bobby (J. Quinton Johnson), who happens to be the headmaster’s nephew. He also must deal with the passive aggressive attention of the quiet David (Caleb Eberhardt), the physical beauty of his roomate AJ (John Clay III) and, most of all, his own simmering urges. He is at times a silly kid and at times a calculating operator, savvy beyond his years, both a leader and a victim. Mr. Pope handles these transitions effortlessly, creating a vivid, capable and graceful character. His cast mates are equally skilled, and aided in no small amount by the clever direction of Trip Cullman. Mr. Clay’s AJ flops on his bed like a child in his first scene. In his last, he is sharing that bed in a mature, nearly parental fashion. Mr. Eberhardt’s David, hiding behind his glasses, shows the earmarks of a strict upbringing. His true motivations startling reveal themselves just moments before he acts on them.
Two great old-timers handle the adult roles. Chuck Cooper plays the kind, if uncomfortable, Headmaster Marrow, questioningly advising Pharus to “Tighten up…You gotta tighten up so that people don’t assume too much. Like all men hold some things in.” And Austin Pendleton shows up as a visiting teacher who is there to lead the students in a course of creative thinking, but nearly causes a racial blow-up instead. Of late, it seems that Mr. Pendleton’s name appears in theatrical press releases on a nearly weekly basis, acting and directing his way across all levels of New York theater like a man on fire.
The religious spirituals, performed throughout with increasing intensity, behave in a fascinating way. They do not advance the plot or reveal character in the way of a traditional musical. Instead, they control the mood of the production in intangible ways. They first bubble up during scene shifts, then announce themselves more dramatically through the course of the show’s 100 minutes, not interrupting the action so much as tincturing it. Additionally, there is a beautifully written extended scene, midway through the night, where the boys discuss the significance of their music, its ties to slavery and how it resonates in today’s world; gospels as a beacon of faith more than a call to action. In Pharus’s words, “Not to cross some man made border but to find a place in our hearts that felt like peace, not on this earth but else where in my Father’s house.”
Choir Boy – By Tarell Alvin McCraney; Directed by Trip Cullman
With Nicholas L. Ashe (Junior Blake), Daniel Bellomy (Ensemble), Jonathan Burke (Ensemble), Gerald Caesar (Ensemble), John Clay III (Anthony Justin “AJ” James), Chuck Cooper (Headmaster Marrow), Caleb Eberhardt (David Heard), Marcus Gladney (Ensemble), J. Quinton Johnson (Bobby Marrow), Austin Pendleton (Mr. Pendleton) and Jeremy Pope (Pharus Jonathan Young).
Jason Michael Webb (music direction, arrangements & original music), David Zinn (scenic & costume design), Peter Kaczorowski (lighting design), Fitz Patton (original music & sound design), Cookie Jordan (hair & make-up design), Thomas Schall (fight director) and Camille A. Brown (choreography). Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., 212-239-6200, http://choirboybroadway.com. Through February 17. Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.