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He Says: MTC’s Choir Boy Boldly Sings Loud and Clear

He Says: MTC’s Choir Boy Boldly Sings Loud and Clear

Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre has certainly got their rhythm on strong with the Broadway transfer of Choir Boy. It sings and flies high with a harmonic beauty and wide wings in the much deserved bigger house while at the same time, intimately dashing its emotional private school book bag up hard against the shower room walls. It is filled to the brim with gorgeous singing, kind and loving humorous and harmonious connection, and painful punches to the gut and to the head. Written sweetly and clearly by the “Moonlight” Oscar-winning Tarell Alvin McCraney, Choir Boy focuses its finely tuned gaze on a proud and head strong young student who dives forward, running towards his goals with a ‘no apologies’ stance, bravely projecting exactly who he is and what he is capable of. It’s a star making performance by Jeremy Pope (off-Broadway’s The View Upstairs, upcoming Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud) as the young and proud Pharus Young, a Junior at the all black Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, who ignores the bullying taunts thrown strongly and bitterly by Bobby Marrow, played forcefully by J. Quinton Johnson (Broadway’s Hamilton), who also happens to be in the somewhat protected arms of his Uncle, the Headmaster. Pharus bravely finds the inner power to proudly stand up front and center to sing the school song at the Seniors’ graduation, but the traditional spotlight doesn’t quite go as planned, and Pharus must come face to face with all that the big bad world has to offer and throw at a young black man like Pharus.

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Jeremy Pope (center) with Cast of Choir Boy. Photo by Joan Marcus.

As directed with a strong-arm for conflict and a precise ear for song, Trip Cullman (Broadway’s Lobby Hero, Six Degrees of Separation) keeps this one-act play moving clearly and lightly, like a fine-tuned orchestra performing a classic piece of Mozart using, like most traditional classical pieces of music, a neat melodic line placed strongly over a subordinate choral accompaniment.  Choir Boy,assisted by musical direction, arrangements and original music by Jason Michael Webb (Broadway’s The Color Purple), has a light elegance in place, utilizing variety and contrast within its structure, becoming more pronounced and focused as the whole sound and fury increases in size, range, and power.  This symphonic delivery is by no means a solo concerto. Regardless of how good Pope is, Chuck Cooper and Austin Pendleton as Headmaster Marrow and Mr. Pendleton fill in the sound with their own brand of solid engagement, even when being a bit stereotypical in their creation.  Their scenes with Pope and the other young students drive the performance up with a dramatic sense of purpose, with Headmaster Marrow’s balancing act a true thing of virtuoso beauty.

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Jeremy Pope, Chuck Cooper. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Like classical music that is made up of phrases with contrasting melodic figures and rhythms, Choir Boy finds its own shades and phrases in the demeanors of the other choir members, but it is in Pharus’s handsome and impressive jock roommate, Anthony, played delicately and dynamically by John Clay III (Encores’ Grand Hotel) where the compassion and the art of understanding can truly be found woven into the homophonic texture.  McCraney’s stylistic galant in this studly creation gives the entanglement a light young elegance in Anthony’s physical school-boy embodiment that is both dignified and impressively authentic.   The language rings pure and clean, both in its innocence and its clarity, especially surrounding cute funny boy, Junior, played with a wonderful cleverness by Nicholas L. Ashe (LCT’s Kill Floor). Playing out the principles of counterpoint, there is also the deep dark dread of David Heard, played a bit too sullenly by Caleb Eberhardt (off-Broadway’s Is God Is), delving into the conflicted Catholic boy with a bit too much obviousness for Choir Boy‘s own good, although he delivers one of the most touching musical moments with his rendition of Skip Scarborough’s “I Have Never Been So Much in Love Before” that sings forth the passion of what lies beneath every young man coming to terms with his version of love and sexuality.

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John Clay III, Jeremy Pope. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Choir Boy basks in the varied forms of musical expression from Boys II Men, playfully sung by Bully Bobbie and his sweet-natured but simple sidekick, to the more classical renditions by the choir. Within that musicality, this tender and forceful play defines itself with a clear structure and form that delivers, with true classical form, a well-defined contrast between tonic and dominant, performed and given forth with musical stability with a clear cadence within this tight and fresh scenario. The dynamics highlight the structural characteristics of the piece, developing the powerful variants with ease and beauty. I did not cry, like the man two seats away from me who was so moved by the touching scene of compassion that he could barely contain himself, nor was I intellectually kicked into high gear by the dynamic debate brought forth by Mr. Pendleton in his class on ‘creative thinking’ regarding the “History of Negro Spirituals”, but as a whole, the continual progress and subtle overall composition of Choir Boy, would make Mozart proud. It’s clever, clear, and concise, while balancing numerous counterpoints like a well tuned orchestra, finding its focus and strength in Pope’s Pharus, while never forgetting the details of the less emphasized others, giving them all moments to shine, and in turn, shine a bright beautiful and classical light on itself.

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The Cast of Choir Boy with Austin Pendleton (left). Photo by Joan Marcus.For more, go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Broadway
@#frontmezzjunkies

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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