Besides being one of the most creatively-told gay coming of age dramas, CHOIR BOY has one of the best ensembles that have graced a Broadway stage. I say that because at the matinee performance I saw two understudies take on the lead and a featured role. The result: a seamlessly staged play (with song) and an emotionally rich and powerful tale of growing up.
Pharus, brilliantly played by understudy Jonathan Burke, not only doesn’t hide but also flaunts his being gay at the all-boy, all-Black, Drew Academy. (The Headmaster pleads with him to “tighten up”.) On full scholarship, and from a fatherless household, through talent and cunning, he leads the choir, an esteemed acapella group that is the school's signature activity for its fundraising and civic reputation. Pharus’ status is jeopardized by a series of events that occur when Bobby (superbly played by understudy Gerald Caeser) a legacy with privileged background, whose uncle happens to be Headmaster, taunts Pharus calling him “sissy” and “faggot”.
Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney takes the powder-keg atmosphere of the all-boys school to explore all aspects of intra-racial issues between African American young men - class distinctions, family background, notions of masculinity (yes, even penis size) that have traditionally underpinned “white”, boarding school coming of age stories like “Separate Peace” and “Lord of the Flies”. McCraney writes about what he knows – he’s African American and gay and author of the Oscar-winning “Moonlight” -but he makes Pharus’ pain and the Black boys struggling to become men universal.
What makes CHOIR BOY unique is how McCraney and musical director Jason Michael Webb incorporate acapella song into the drama, borrowing from spirituals, gospel, folk and pop. The range of the ten numbers is remarkable: from the group’s soulful lament that reflects the loneliness of school boarding, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” to a hysterical riff by the Bobby and his sidekick on New Editions's “Boys to Men” (which, after all, happens to be McCraney’s point), and a delightful fantasy sequence inspired by the Temptations. The choreography -mostly hip hop - by Camille A. Brown rivals any dance of the big musicals now on Broadway. Director Tripp Cullman does his best work yet, assisted by David Zinn, whose versatile set shifts from classroom, to locker room and dorm room with ease, and by Peter Kaczorowski, who calibrates his lighting design with distinctive sensitivity.
All the young men are excellent, especially Caleb Eberhardt as divinity student David and John Clay III as AJ, Pharus’ straight, jock roommate. The ever reliable Chuck Cooper is perfect as the headmaster, and a puckish Austin Pendleton, as a visiting white teacher who brings a different perspective to events, is, as ever, the puckish Austin Pendleton.
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