“Choir Boy”, which opened last night the Samuel G. Friedman Theater, is about more than one boy. Yes, it is principally about Pharus, the bubbly, exhilarating and exasperating, choir-lead (Jeremy Pope) at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys. The story also lassos Pharus’s choir mates as well as Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper). But playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney refuses to settle for a modern, coming-of-age story about four young men of color. He starts there and incorporates—and implicates—the rest of humanity. That he triumphs is a gesture to this writer’s gift for the nomenclature of everyday poetry and perfectly tuned (and frequently hilarious) dialogue—all girded by an acute, aching humanism.
“Choir Boy” succeeds not just because of its words and themes. At its center is an ecosystem, a structure, that this ravishing production exploits fully, often breathlessly. The story follows Pharus and his quest to infuse a spiritual fervor in the work of the choir he leads—a mission that is received with varying levels of enthusiasm by his choir mates, as is Pharus himself. For all that Pharus harkens back to a love of ancient hymns and teachings, he is distinctly and unabashedly a person of his time, one who is not at all inclined to turn the other cheek. He refuses to amend his effeminate behaviors at the headmaster’s behest (“Tighten up!” Marrow tells him when his wrist goes limp). He is not hesitant to use his position to settle scores and favor his own ascendance. And he’s unafraid to allow freely associative streams of thought—or the calculated appearance of such thought—to provoke and inflame.
That Pharus is consistently at risk of undermining his own standing at Drew, as well as his relationships with the very people who support him, forms the narrative that drives “Choir Boy.” McRaney and director Trip Cullman use the high school choir as a kind of roiling, extremely physical Greek chorus. The boys bring song and dance movement—at turns effusive, liturgical, mournful (Fitz Patton’s beautifully engineered music and sound design)—to the relationships they share with each other. Their songs express the emotions and experiences that often elude youthful understanding and awareness and create a deeply felt, if somewhat unconscious, communal engagement.
“Choir Boy” is not a musical. There are no musical instruments on stage or anywhere near it. Yet it is impossible not to be swept away by the soaring, a cappella heights of the show’s songs and its use of complex, explosive dance movement (created by Camille A. Brown, a stunning achievement). The gorgeous array of lyrical song and propulsive movement on stage matches McCraney’s visceral, lyrical text.
The fluid, scene-shifting set (David Zinn) delivers an immediate sense of the various places on campus the boys inhabit, and the intricate, diverse lighting scheme (Peter Kaczorowski) succeeds both in highlighting the intensely personal and dramatic exchanges as well as the more open, ensemble-driven arrangements.
The production is sumptuously, sensitively directed by Cullman who engineers a complete patina of perfectly realized performances, moored at opposite ends by Cooper and Pope. Cooper brings an indefatigable sympathy and a loud, grumbling, real-world weariness to his role. From the moment this theater pro takes the stage, he establishes both agency and authenticity. Pope similarly inhabits his character. His timing is impeccable—he seems to talk variously through both his own emotions and everybody else’s, delivering his dialogue as though it were somehow hinged to the physicality of his character. Pope wins our devotion by his seemingly ingrained inability to deliver a false note.
It is a shared ability, this gift for transparency: one shared by both play and production. This is a play that exquisitely balances light and dark, hope and despair. And what makes it so winning is that its light is strong enough to rattle the chains of our worst demons and tendencies, as well as to address the societal, structural impediments that lay beneath. It is a light hinted at by Pharus himself, when a pin spot finds him on stage at the end, smiling faintly toward heaven, towards possibilities of which he seems to have had glimmers.
Choir Boy plays through Feb. 24 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 W. 47th St. Tickets are available at Telecharge.com, by calling 212-239-6200, or by visiting the box office.