'Choir Boy' review: Coming-of-age drama sings
WHAT "Choir Boy"
WHEN | WHERE Through Feb. 17, Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
INFO From $79; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com
BOTTOM LINE Old story (prep school boys and their sexual identities) but fine performances and beautiful singing give it heart.
When the young men of the all-black Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys raise their voices in song, it is in glorious harmony. Not surprisingly their lives, we come to understand in Tarell Alvin McCraney's "Choir Boy” at Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club, are far more conflicted and confused.
As he did in the 2017 best picture Oscar winner “Moonlight," McCraney presents us with a wrenching study of a young man struggling to come to terms with his sexual identity. Set in an elite prep school — hardly earthshaking for this kind of coming-of-age drama — the play is centered on the institution’s renowned gospel choir and its incoming leader, Pharus Young (Jeremy Pope).
We first see Pharus doing what he loves, singing the school anthem at commencement as the graduates file in. But a nasty homophobic slur from one of his classmates stops him momentarily, forcing him to ward off demands for an explanation from the stern headmaster (Chuck Cooper). Standing by the school's unwritten honor code, Pharus refuses to divulge the source of the bullying, but not everyone buys that and heavy-duty retaliation ensues.
If this is starting to sound like an old story, you are not wrong. It's tempting to throw in the towel on the overdose of teenage angst we've seen on and off Broadway in recent years. Fortunately, this show redeems itself with magnificent a cappella vocals and spot-on performances from the uniformly strong cast, guided by Trip Cullman, who also directed the piece when it ran at MTC's second stage in 2013.
Pope, reprising his role from the earlier production, gives an emotional performance as a young man fighting his natural flamboyance and it's heartbreaking when the headmaster encourages him to man up so "people don't assume too much." Notable performances also come from J. Quinton Johnson as the rabble-rousing Bobby and Caleb Eberhardt as the troubled David. Austin Pendleton is a rumpled force of energy as a white teacher who comes back to the school to lead a class in creative thinking.
Ultimately, a discussion in this class gives the play much of its heart. In a poignant recollection, Pharus talks about the significance of the spirituals they sing and how his grandmother believed the rich music gave slaves peace, serenity and a strength that endures. "You could hear," he tells his classmates, "how 'keep your hand on the plow' later became 'keep your eyes on the prize.' " And the end result, he concludes to murmers of audience approval: "Yes we can."