Thursday, January 10, 2019

143 (2018-2019): CHOIR BOY (seen January 9, 2019)

"Locker Room Talk" 

Welcome to Theatre’s Leiter Side’s first review of 2019. Things have been slow over the past couple of weeks but they’re finally starting to pick up again. Upcoming reviews for January will cover such shows as On Blueberry Hill at 59E59, Blue Ridge at the Atlantic, Maestro at the Duke, Trick or Treat at 59E59, the LaBute New Play Festival at the Davenport, About Alice at TFANA, Intelligence at Next Door at the NYTW, a Yiddish Waiting for Godot at the 14th Street Y, Awake at TBG, The Convert at A.R.T., Behind the Scenes at EST, The American Tradition at the 13th Street Rep, True West on Broadway, and To Kill a Mockingbird, also on Broadway. We begin with Choir Boy.
When the Manhattan Theatre Club’s first production of Choir Boy opened Off Broadway (following its hit premiere at London’s Royal Court Theatre) to mostly solid reviews five and a half years ago, in the summer of 2013, its young author, Tarell Alvin McRaney, had not yet come to international prominence. Since then, among other achievements, he’s won an Oscar for his screenplay for the Academy Award-winning Moonlight (cowritten with director Barry Jenkins on the basis of a McRaney play), received a MacArthur Fellowship, and become head of Yale’s playwriting program. After nearly half a decade, Choir Boy has made it to Broadway, again under MTC auspices, with several of the original actors recreating their roles, its cast augmented by additional actors to fill out the schoolboy choir, and with several other alterations, including the elimination of a standout gospel number, noted below.

The show continues to make an impact but I was even more impressed by the 2013 production, presented in the intimate environs of City Center Stage II. The following adapts my earlier review to reflect the current production. 
Jeremy Pope, Chuck Cooper. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
When Tarell Alvin McRaney’s Choir Boy, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, opens, Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope, repeating his outstanding 2013 performance, and soon to appear in a Broadway jukebox musical about The Temptations), a vocally gifted but markedly effeminate student at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, is singing the school song, “Trust and Obey,” backed by the school choir. Suddenly, a fellow chorus member hisses a homophobic slur (“faggot ass Nigga”). Pharus, taken by surprise, takes a four-second pause before he continues. 

Soon, he is questioned by Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper), very disturbed about his performance, but Pharus, citing the school’s code of not snitching on his classmates, refuses to name names. Pretty soon, however, he exacts vengeance on his tormenter, Bobby Marrow (J. Quinton Johnson), the headmaster’s nephew and a “legacy student,” by kicking him out of the choir. The tensions created by Bobby’s virulent reaction to Pharus’s sexuality (possibly because of his jealousy of Pharus’s talent) and Pharus’s response create the play’s principal thematic through line. It does, though, seem less emphatic in the current production, where other issues flatten its dominance.
J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Drew is a school for African-Americans, the only boys we see being members of the school choir, which concentrates on spirit. David Zinn again dresses the boys neatly in traditional prep school uniforms, with blazers and yellow ties, worn with close-cropped, regulation haircuts. They also undress to take showers although the frontal nudity I noted in my original review is now thankfully replaced—at least from where I sat—by bare butts and toweled torsos. These scenes, by the way, provide the inspiration for the evening's biggest laugh, when Pharus delivers a line about "locker room talk"
John Clay III, Jeremy Pope. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
 In addition to Pharus and Bobby, there are AJ (John Clay III), the star athlete, who is Pharus’s mature and understanding roommate; Junior (Nicholas L. Ashe, another returnee), a baby-faced baritone who follows Bobby around like a puppy; and David (Caleb Eberhardt), a thin, eternally serious, bible-carrying divinity student.

The only adults are Headmaster Marrow, relatively new to his job and somewhat insecure in it, and Mr. Pendleton (Austin Pendleton, repeating his 2013 role in a character seemingly named for him), an older white man who marched with Dr. King during the Civil Rights movement, and who has been hired to teach a required course in Creative Thinking. Even though he has no musical ability, the headmaster puts Mr. Pendleton in charge of the choir, hoping the teacher can somehow heal the fractious relationships among the boys. One of his first lines after making his entry caused a burst of laughter: “It's not just black people who are late.”

Pharus offers a strong fulcrum around which the drama revolves, although he does bring to mind Chris Colfer's Kurt on TV’s “Glee.” He’s extremely bright and well read, extraordinarily talented, aggressively defensive, verbally deft, and creatively resentful. (Given what has become a thread in McRaney’s writing, it’s probably not a stretch to suggest he has an autobiographical basis.)

Pope, an outstanding tenor making his Broadway debut, plays him on multiple levels, showing his deep insecurities as well as his overt self-confidence. He’s able to mine the character’s limp-wristed effeminacy for both comedy and pathos. In one of the play’s most powerful moments, taking place in Mr. Pendleton’s class, he engages in a provocative debate about the meaning of spirituals, arguing against some historians’ belief that they are coded messages to slaves about flight, advocating for them instead as still relevant tools for achieving spiritual healing.

McRaney’s intermissionless, hour and 40-minute play engages with sexual and racial issues in a number of ways, not least the habit some young black men have of tossing around the “N- word,” a proclivity that detonates an explosive response from Mr. Pendleton, who categorically rejects such thoughtlessness.

These subjects are always interesting and well conveyed by McRaney’s dialogue, although its crafting sometimes seems too carefully designed for dramatic effect and not what boys of this age would normally say. Smart as Pharus is, for example, his speech about spirituals sounds more like an academic paper than an impromptu outpouring during a class discussion. Also, plays and movies that dramatize a gay boy’s victimization and consequent coming of age have become even more common today than when I made this point in 2013.   
Jeremy Pope, Caleb Eberhardt. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
What many will take away from Choir Boy, however, are its musical interpolations, sung acapella in exquisite harmonies and solos as memorably arranged by Jason Michael Webb with occasional choreography by Camille A. Brown. Each boy has a terrific solo, but when the choir sings as a group, especially “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child,” it’s almost as if you never heard the songs before. 

In my 2013 review, I wrote that, despite the enormous ability of the young actors, the number that stood out for me was Chuck Cooper’s giving voice to “Been in a Storm So Long.” This song was presumably eliminated because it made little sense to give the headmaster such a musical centerpiece. Cooper must employ only his considerable acting skills and not his great singing ones.     
Company of Choir Boy. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Trip Cullman again does a fine job of staging Choir Boy, giving it a definite rhythm and precision; everything is well timed and fluid. On the other hand, there’s a theatrical overlay that makes the boys seem more like they’re performing than being; I watched and listened with deep interest but couldn’t engage on a deeper emotional level. This was true in 2013 and even more noticeable in the current production (J. Quinton Johnson being a prime example), where some of the performances seem more overwrought than necessary. It’s an approach that serves to highlight not so much the play’s drama but its melodrama. 
Company of Choir Boy with Austin Pendleton (right). Photo: Matthew Murphy.
For pure acting dynamics, the palm goes to Cooper. Austin Pendleton is the Austin Pendleton we have seen so often before, with his rumpled clothing, uncombed hair, irregular rhythms, and other Pendletonian mannerisms. However, when he blows the roof off with his attack on the n-word, or when he discourses with his students, he reveals the kind of idiosyncratic realism that has given him such a long and distinguished career. 

David Zinn recreates his 2013 set, which originally surrounded by the audience on three sides, by confining it within the proscenium, with its red, wood floor and red brick wall on which hangs a large blackboard. The wall’s lower half can disappear, revealing the interior of AJ and Pharus’s bedroom or a simple landscape background, while two side openings also allow for rapid shifts of locale.
In my 2013 review, I said that Choir Boy had a great deal to offer, and, in a rare Nostradamus moment, added that I wouldn’t be surprised to see it given an extended run or even moved to another venue. Truer words . . . The play didn’t work for me then on every level, nor does it now, but there should definitely be a large choir out there for it, ready to be preached to.

Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th St., NYC
Through February 24