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.
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.
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.
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.