Choir Boy review – Tarell Alvin McCraney hits high notes on Broadway

Samuel J Friedman Theatre

The Oscar-winning Moonlight writer transfers his musical to a bigger venue and, while there are missteps, the songs bring the house down

“Tighten up.” That’s what the headmaster of a preparatory school for African American adolescents tells Pharus Jonathan Young, a rising senior and a choir soloist. But what the headmaster really means is straighten out. Pharus, the protagonist of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s sensitive and lightly anguished Choir Boy, is loud and vivacious, his wrists are not exactly rigid. He knows that everyone thinks of him as a “lil Sweet Boy”; he declines to be made sour.

Like Moonlight, the Oscar-winning film McCraney, co-wrote, Manhattan Theater Club’s Choir Boy is concerned with what it means to be young, queer and black. The play, with sympathetic direction from Trip Cullman, works best as a jewel-faceted character study with Jeremy Pope, who originated the role of Pharus off-Broadway in 2013, tenderly inhabiting a young man hungry for love and respect, but unwilling or maybe unable to deny or disguise who he is – a teenager with a seraphic voice and pictures of Michelle Obama ringed above his bed, who desires and is desired by other men.

In the opening scene, he stands in front of the school singing the hymn Trust and Obey only to have one of his fellow singers hiss “sissy” and other slurs until the song catches in his throat. Pharus refuses to inform on the classmate and over the course of the senior year, he tries to let his not so little light shine, to the amusement, bemusement and disapproval of peers and teachers. McCraney has added a few new lines to bring the script up to date, bitter jokes about Kanye press conferences and locker-room talk that remind the audience the country has become no kinder to those who aren’t rich, white and straight.

But a play needs a plot and this one is only lightly sketched, with nods, probably deliberate, to prep school classics like Tea and Sympathy and shades of some of the more somber episodes of Glee. Will Pharus be allowed to sing at commencement? Will he earn the acceptance of his friends? There’s also a subplot involving a retired teacher, Mr Pendleton (played with shaggy verve by Austin Pendleton), who hopes to unlock the boys’ minds Dead Poets-style (and also improbably assumes command of the choir), scenes that mostly go nowhere, however fleetly.

Because McCraney has an honest and wide-flung empathy, his reach extends outward past Pharus to his antagonists and sometime friends, treating each man and boy with warmth. There are strong roles not only for Pope, but also for John Clay III as AJ, Pharus’s jock roommate AJ; J Quinton Johnson, as Billy, a bully nursing his own wounds; Nicholas L Ashe as Junior, Billy’s sometime sidekick; and Caleb Eberhardt as David, a young man with a calling for the priesthood. The tension between the richness of the characters and the thinness of the story isn’t always held with grace.

There are other tensions operating here, too. McCraney typically layers his stories with myth and archetype. But here he’s abandoned most of his poetic and thematic flourishes (barring an on-the-nose speech in which Pharus discusses the beauty of spirituals), working instead in a more naturalistic style that while friendly to Broadway can sometimes feel a little pat. The short scenes tumble on speedily, but it’s really only in the clefts between scenes, when the young men step forward, not necessarily in character, and deliver forceful, emotive versions of Rockin’ in Jerusalem or Rainbow Round My Shoulder, that the play takes on a real intensity. In these moments Choir Boy ascends and its choirboys achieve, as long as the notes hold, what feels like freedom.

Contributor

Alexis Soloski

The GuardianTramp

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