Choir Boy

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Photo: Matthew Murphy Review
In today’s political and dramatic climate, the gay coming-of-age story can feel a bit like yesterday’s news. Fortunately, that’s anything but true of “Choir Boy” the deeply felt and surprisingly fresh work by the gifted playwright (and Oscar-winning screenwriter) Tarell Alvin McCraney, which is receiving a practically flawless production under Trip Cullman’s sensitive direction at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater (five years after its Off-Broadway premiere by MTC).

The one-act piece is set at Drew Prep, a fictional all-boys Christian school for African-American youth, run by the often gruff but ultimately compassionate Headmaster Morrow (Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper in another truly memorable turn). Like many school leaders, Morrow has a lot on his hands; but here, he has more than his share, dealing with both the extremely talented, very intelligent, and highly effeminate Pharus (the truly sensational Jeremy Pope in a Tony-worthy turn), the new leader of the school’s beloved choir, and his own hot-headed nephew Bobby (an effective J. Quinton Johnson), a fellow student who constantly taunts Pharus with homophobic and racial slurs.

Pharus’ often outrageous mannerisms, while absolutely authentic, also hide his own pain and doubt, something that is almost innately understood by his hunky, straight roommate Anthony (the endearing, more-than-able-bodied John Clay III). But how well Pharus is really accepted by some of his other schoolmates, most notably the quiet, tormented David (a heartbreaking Caleb Eberhardt), is something one is never sure of -- until one stunning, slightly unexpected scene that might you leave in tears.

Had McCraney limited his play simply to Pharus’ journey, even told as compellingly and bravely as it is, the work would be stirring. But it’s more than that because McCraney adds so many layers to his tale, including the boys’ various relationships to their parents (cleverly revealed through one-sided phone calls), an exploration of the realities of wealth in the African-American community, and even a much-needed outside perspective to the longtime issue of race relations, personified here by a veteran white teacher (superbly portrayed by Austin Pendleton) whose good-natured façade finally cracks in light of the boys’ infighting.

Adding their own shine to the production are David Zinn’s clever set design, which allows for remarkably seamless transitions between scenes set in the classrooms, Pharus and Anthony’s bedroom, and the group shower area (where there is some notable male nudity); Jason Michael Webb’s superb music direction; and Camille A. Brown’s stunningly athletic choreography, beautifully executed by the cast.

While I admit it’s possible that gay men and women and African-Americans may have stronger reactions to the play than other audiences, I think the work is so smart and so well-crafted that it will resonate with everyone. McCraney never seems to be preaching only to the choir – and by blending wisdom, compassion, humor and music with a truly expert touch, “Choir Boy” is rarely short of heavenly.

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Jeremy Pope, Chuck Cooper, Austin Pendleton, Nicholas L. Ashe, John Clay III, Caleb Eberhardt, J. Quinton Johnson, with Daniel Bellomy, Jonathan Burke, Gerald Caesar, Marcus Gladney

Open/Close Dates
Opening 1/8/2019
Closing 3/10/2019

Preview Open/ Preview Close Dates
Preview Opening 12/12/2018
Closing Open-ended

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Theatre Info
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036