Pharus Jonathan Young is black, gay and gifted, like the playwright who created him, Tarrell Alvin McCraney, best known for the Oscar winning film Moonlight. McCraney is making his Broadway debut with Choir Boy, his sweet, sad, substantive play. With nimble direction by Trip Cullman and a lively cast mostly of Broadway newcomers performing some soulful music, it doubles as a glorious entertainment.
Pharus, winningly portrayed by Jeremy Pope, is the choir boy of the title, a scholarship student at The Charles R Drew Preparatory School for Boys, where for half a century the black elite has sent its sons. Pharus is comically full of himself, impressed with his own talent as a tenor; “I’ve never missed the key of g since I was three.” He’s not just sassy; he’s “ambitious and operating,” as the headmaster puts it. But he is also full of insecurities, not least because he has been bullied all his life — “the lil Sweet Boy,” he says, that “they been trying to straighten out for years.”
His challenges are evident from the opening scene, when, chosen as a junior to sing the school song at the senior class graduation, Pharus is quietly heckled by his rival tenor, Bobby (Hamilton veteran J. Quinton Johnson), a bully, a homophobe, and, if that weren’t bad enough, the headmaster’s nephew.
“Sissy,” Bobby taunts Pharus in a whisper, and the epithets escalate.
Pharus turns briefly to regard his tormenter…and in the scene that follows has been called in to the office of the headmaster (Chuck Cooper) being admonished for “not doing not doing what I asked,” which is to sing without interruption.
But one of the great strengths of this play is that our sympathies aren’t reserved just for Pharus, who leads the choir to which most of the other characters belong. As the year unfolds, each character, even those quickly etched, makes his mark, helped immeasurably by a wonderful cast.
Several of the cast members are holdovers from the play’s Off-Broadway run six years ago, and they all shine. In addition to Pope, Cooper is (as always) a convincing presence, this time as a well-meaning if ineffective authority figure. Nicholas L. Ashe is hilarious and adorable as Junior Blake, Bobby’s dim sidekick who occasionally shows some spine. Austin Pendleton at first feels like comic relief as a professor come back from retirement who is not just absent-minded but clueless (he tells the students to download on “i-mail or g-tunes.”) But one tense scene changes our view, and makes a point.
Indeed, several of the characters seem to serve a purpose. John Clay III is terrific as AJ, an athletic student from Willacoochie, Georgia who is as straight as they come. AJ is Pharus’s roommate, not just completely accepting of him, but happy to express his affection for him. If it feels unlikely that a straight athletic teenager from the rural South would feel quite so comfortable with an effeminate roommate, it is something that the playwright seems to be arguing should be the case – and that the playwright, director and actor make plausible.
We come to understand that even Bobby, who is the closest thing to a villain in the piece, is reacting to the recent death of his mother, and rebelling against the pressure that his father is putting on him to be Black Man at his Best at all times – “everything got to be watched, gotta be careful, gotta be cordial.”
Each of these characters arguably illustrates for us what it means to become a black man in America, giving a freshness to what is in broad outline a familiar boarding school coming-of-age story.
That outline makes Choir Boy feel more commercial than the other plays by McCraney that I’ve seen – The Brothers Size, The Brother/Sister Plays, Head of Passes. It is also the most straightforwardly entertaining: Choir Boy is not technically a musical, but it is full of hymns, spirituals, original music and pop anthems ranging from Patti Labelle to Boyz II Men, inventively arranged by Jason Michael Webb, smoothly choreographed by Camille A. Brown (Once On This Island) and performed by a “choir” that’s as hip and exciting as any vocal group from the 1960s.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Jeremy Pope is making his Broadway debut in Choir Boy, but in a few months, he will portray Eddie Kendricks, the lead role of the forthcoming Broadway musical Ain’t Too Proud, about The Temptations.
Choir Boy is on stage at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10036) through February 24. Tickets and details
Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Trip Cullman. Music direction, arrangements and original music by Jason Michael Webb, scenic and costume design by David Zinn, lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski, original music and sound design by Fitz Patton, hair and makeup design by Cookie Jordan, fight director Thomas Schall, movement by Camille A. Brown. Featuring Jeremy Pope (Pharus Jonathan Young), Nicholas L. Ashe (Junior Blake), Daniel Bellomy (Ensemble), Jonathan Burke (Ensemble), Gerald Caesar (Ensemble), John Clay III (Anthony Justin “AJ” James), Chuck Cooper (Headmaster Marrow), Caleb Eberhardt(David Heard), Marcus Gladney (Ensemble), J. Quinton Johnson (Bobby Marrow), Austin Pendleton (Mr. Pendleton).