Review: “Choir Boy” at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Manhattan Theatre Club first produced Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy in 2013 as a part of their off-Broadway season. By all accounts, it was a smashing success for the company, both critically and with audiences. 5 years later, MTC has brought the play back in a glossed-up production in their Broadway house. This resurrection may seem out of left field, until one considers the success of Moonlight, the 2017 Academy Award-winner for Best Picture, that was based on an unproduced play by McCraney. MTC is smart to capitalize on that film’s success, especially because Choir Boy is terrific, and is every bit deserving of a production on the great white way, even with its own small share of flaws.

Choir Boy lies somewhere between cliche and innovation: set in an elite African-American all-boys Christian boarding school, the story concerns the lives of the students and teachers over the course of a year, focusing on Pharus, a senior who must dually play politics with the administration over his leading the school choir and come to terms with his own gay identity, all while reckoning with high school bullies and family matters. That’s just about every cliche in the book mixed together in a blender, and in the hands of a less confident and artful author, Choir Boy could easily become well-meaning ooey-gooey claptrap. However, McCraney is no lesser author, and his script is smartly observed and rammed full of life.

And just where does McCraney go right where so many others have gone wrong? The secret is that McCraney clearly has the ability to listen, rather than just talk. To create individuated personalities than never fall into stereotype as is done in Choir Boy is an achievement only accomplished by a deeper understanding of humanity than most could hope to have. Choir Boy refuses easy moral judgments on its characters or the actions those characters take, instead asking the audience to empathize with everyone’s struggle with the horror of growing up. On top of that, McCraney is one of the rare queer playwrights who writes with unapologetically queer sensibility: Choir Boy is set in a world where queer sexuality is not only a possibility but an inevitability.

Choir Boy is, in short, a revelation of a play, and the cast currently performing at the Friedman Theatre is—dare I say—perfect. Their performance of several hymns throughout the evening—set to some spectacularly energetic dances by Camille A. Brown—puts the cast in this reviewer’s mind as the best singing and dancing ensemble on Broadway. Special word must be given to Jeremy Pope for his equally charming and cruel performance as Pharus, as well as Chuck Cooper for his classically plummy portrayal as the stern-yet-loving Headmaster Marrow and Austin Pendleton as Mr. Pendleton, a bumbling and buzzing (white) substitute teacher that calls to mind a mad scientist crossed with a teddy bear. It’s a shame that director Trip Cullman’s production, including David Zinn’s set design, is overly literal and emphatic, when a lighter, more artful touch was needed. Perhaps McCraney’s world is too influenced by black American culture for a white director such as Mr. Cullman to give the work the stylistic approach it calls out for.

Small problems notwithstanding, Choir Boy remains excellent, especially in the context of modern queer theatre. One hopes that McCraney will go on to be one of the authors of this generation, and MTC’s success with Choir Boy will encourage more black queer work on Broadway, though perhaps for now we can enjoy this one example of excellence.

Choir Boy plays at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through February 24. More information available here.

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