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A CurtainUp Review
Choir Boy

"When I was little my grandmother would Sing songs to me that she told me freed slaves. Not physically But spiritually. She said 'sangin' These songs deep in the night here helped teach and coax other slaves, runaway and free Into peace, serenity, let them know God was with them every Where they went, gave them strength and spiritual nourishment. Thus we call them Negro Spirituals." — Pharus
Choir Boy
Jeremy Pope and Chuck Cooper
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
It is comforting to recall how Tom Brown bravely withstood the bullying of upper classmen during his "School Days" and how Tom Lee overcame the stigma of being a social outcast at the private school he attended with a little "Tea and Sympathy" from the headmaster's wife. It is now heartening to see Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope), the central character in Tarell Alvin McCraney's new play at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II stand up for who he is at the private all-black prep school in the South that he attends.

But just how prepared for him is this prominently religious, educational institution that has yet to condone or even acknowledge sexual diversity? Although the first disarming appearance by Pharus is positioned to encourage both affection and a little benign laughter, it is the use of the "n" word by a peer as the play progresses that brings some unexpected "oohs" from a few members in the audience.

It is always difficult to anticipate or gauge how a New York audience will react to a play despite it being previously acclaimed in London. The recent headline making event, in which Southern cooking TV personality Paula Dean was charged with racism and for her use of the "n" word was evidently at the fore in audience members' minds.

Of course there is a difference when that deplorable euphemism is used by a white person to denigrate someone who is black. It is here embraced by African-Americans who have branded it liberating by taking on its ownership in order to neutralize its original intent. What essentially isn't yet embraced as acceptable by the school's administration or its students is Pharus's sexual identity or his commendable ownership of it.

Our attention and interest in the talented Pharus is immediate as he steps forward to sing the traditional school song at a commencement exercise in a manner that is both stunningly effeminate and potentially incendiary. Although Pharus is the talented lead singer of the choir as well as an outstanding student, he has no intention of downplaying either his personality or his mannerisms — of course, to the disapproval of the school's administrators and especially to the discomfort of his peers with whom he is obliged to get along.

The play's cleverest device is the use of Gospel music as sung a cappella at choir rehearsals as well as to punctuate dramatic scenes. The contribution made by musical director and vocal arranger Jason Michael Webb warrants high praise.
Premiered to acclaim last September at London's Royal Cort Theatre in a co-production with the Manhattan Theatre Club (our review ), Choir Boy is crisply directed in New York by Trip Cullman. It has a terrific new cast comprising a quintet of fine young actors as the students who also sing beautifully, an authoritarian Chuck Cooper as the school's headmaster, and Austin Pendleton at his most humorously intellectual as a teacher of Creative Thinking. Although the characters of Marrow and Pendelton (that's also the character's name) appear like stock characters that have been wedged into the dilemmas perpetrated by the more psychologically and sociologically complex band of students, they do serve as sturdy bridges over the stormy seas.

Pharus's decision to stand his ground, even as he withstands heckling and the ugly remarks of the disdainfully homophobic Bobby (a compelling Wallace Smith), the headmaster's nephew, is admirable. It is no industry secret that the multi-talented theater veteran Cooper has a splendid voice and gets an opportunity to show it off. He also gets a chance to bellow with conviction as a man committed to maintaining the school's traditional core values and moral principals.

Pope is making one helluva New York debut as the flamboyantly gay Pharus who is, nevertheless, as discreet as possible about the way he feels about his compassionate but straight roommate Anthony (a strong and sensitive performance by Grantham Coleman.) There is an insightful scene in which Pharus locks historical and political horns with the other boys in Pendleton's classroom over whether or not escape routes were coded into the early spirituals. Pharus also serves as catalyst for the play's most poignant episode involving the quiet and unassuming David (a splendid Kyle Beltran) who may have to do some serious soul searching after an unfortunate encounter that fuels the climactic minutes of the play.

Director Cullman, who recently earned praise for his direction of the challengingly-designed Murder Ballad, has again prompted some exceptional performances from actors working within a difficult space. Set designer David Zinn has made practical use of the small-ish playing area to create various locations in the school, particularly the boy's lockers and shower room and the dorm that emerge impressively from behind a brick wall.

Choir Boy will surprise those expecting the same kind of hyper stylized dramatic form that defined McCraney's The Brother/Sister Plays , the plays that catapulted him to prominence and a plethora of awards. What distinguishes Choir Boy is its unusual and provocative central character, a young man who takes delight in himself and in defense of his sexual identity. It may prove to be an obstacle for him in creating harmony with the voices of people who may be able to shout out the n-word, but find it difficult to proclaim liberation from outdated sexual mores.

The sheer dramatic and musical power that drives Choir Boy is anything but an obstacle for a theatergoer in search of a very good play. . . at a very good price.

Choir Boy
By Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Trip Cullman

Cast: Nicholas L. Ashe (Junior Davis), Kyle Beltran (David Heard), Grantham Coleman (Anthony Justin 'AJ' James), Chuck Cooper (Headmaster Marrow), Austin Pendlteton (Mr. Pendleton), Jeremy Pope (Pharus Jonathan Young), Wallace Smith (Bobby Marrow)
Scenic & Costume Design: David Zinn
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design: Fitz Patton
Music Direction & Vocal arrangements: Jason Michael Webb
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes no intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club: The Studio at Stage II, New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street
Tickets: $30.00 for the initial run of the show
Performances: Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 pm. Matinees on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 pm.
From 6/18/13 Opened 07/02/13 Ends 8/11/13
Review by Simon Saltzman n Saltzman based on performance 06/27/13
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