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Choir Boy

If you see "Choir Boy" -- and you should -- keep your eyes on Pharus, although it’s hard not to, given the extremely animated performance of Jeremy Pope.

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Nicholas l. Ashe, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope,  Caleb Eberhardt and John Clay III in a scene from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy” (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

If you see Choir Boy–and you should–keep your eyes on Pharus, although it’s hard not to, given the extremely animated performance of Jeremy Pope, who originally played the part in 2013, when Choir Boy appeared at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage II.

Now playing at the MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway, Choir Boy is set at The Charles R Drew Preparatory School for Boys, a Catholic academy for young men of color. Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney (who shared the 2017 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Moonlight), the problem with the play is that Pharus’ colleagues and choir mates prove as generic as the student uniforms they all wear: blue blazers, white shirts, striped ties, and beige trousers. (The costume designer is David Zinn, who also did the scenery.)

If Pharus at first seems restrained, that may be because of his homosexuality, as Pope sings the “the school’s song,” Trust and Obey, with his glorious tenor voice, a cappella, even as his classmate Bobby (J. Quinton Johnson) is calling Pharus a “sissy” and “this faggot ass nigga” while he’s singing. And then there’s another colleague, David (Caleb Eberhardt), who, in contrast with Pharus, is hiding his homosexuality–rather badly.

The Cast of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy” (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

When confronted by the school’s Headmaster shortly after, Pharus says, “I do not lie” and “I do not snitch,” refusing to identify Bobby as the culprit of the slurs. But given his voice, Pharus becomes the leader of the gospel choir during this, its 50th anniversary year.

Stalwart actor Austin Pendleton seems to be playing himself when, as history teacher “Mr. Pendleton” returns to the school, to teach “a course in thinking.” Given the students’ dismay when they learn of this, Pendleton says it’s an elective course, only to have the Headmaster contradict him and say it’s mandatory.

But the story, if it can even be called that, keeps spinning out of control and careening in different directions: it never adds up to a play that one can follow or arrives at a particular destination.

Jeremy Pope and Chuck Cooper in a scene from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy” (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

In addition to Pope’s performance, Choir Boy most comes alive whenever the boys break out into song and dance, with Camille A. Brown’s snappy choreography. But to be sure, it’s more of a play with songs than it is a musical, and the dramatic aspects leave more than a lot to be desired.

You may find yourself wishing that director Trip Cullman worked more closely with playwright McCraney to cut some of the confusing loose ends and what might be referred to as the dramatic fat. And in contrast with Pope and Pendleton, the usually boisterous Chuck Cooper proves disappointing as the Headmaster–surprisingly confined, when he should have been more in charge–not to mention, more engaged and engaging.

Honorable mention, however, must also be made for Peter Kaczorowski’s effective lighting design, spilling out on all the players when they go into their song and dance, including, in addition to everyone aforementioned, Nicholas L. Ashe, Daniel Bellomy, Jonathan Burke, Gerald Caesar, John Clay III, and Marcus Gladney. If only the play that contained them had been more effective, it would be a show worth singing about.

Choir Boy (extended through March 10, 2019)

Manhattan Theatre Club

Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.Telecharge.com

Running time: one hour and 50 minutes without an intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (97 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

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