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 Cullmans resume (his Lobby Hero was one of Broadways 2018 bests).
Still, Choir Boy shouldnt be oversold, a temptation given the playwrights Oscar-winning involvement in the director-writer Barry Jenkins 2016 film Moonlight (based on McCraneys play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue). Choir Boys flaws are real – hastily resolved story arcs, unsurprising character turns, talky bluntness – even if they can momentarily hide behind the productions lovelier aspects. Overpraise would do little but raise expectations that this occasional gem doesnt always fulfill.
Best, then, to appreciate what Choir Boy and its wonderful cast does well. First and foremost, theres 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 isnt exactly openly gay, but hes smart enough to know hes 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 hes been given.
The plays 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 Bobbys – in the choirs 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 Bobbys familial connection to the headmaster.
However justified, Bobbys 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), Bobbys 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 Zinns 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 doesnt always work. So familiar is his disheveled, comic schlemiel persona (established all the way back in 1972s screwball homage Whats 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 doesnt help that McCraney awkwardly introduces the character with a silly racial joke that feels thoroughly false coming from the old, staunchly liberal professors 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 dont assume too much…Keep em guessing…at least so they cant ask.”)
And as charismatic as Pope is in his star-making role of Pharus, hed 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 plays halfway point, standing up to the headmaster:
Im 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 dont 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 Im 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.