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Choir Boy

Posted 1/14/18

Choir Boy, reviewed  by Fern Siegel for

When they work, musicals about teenage struggles can be enlightening as well as entertaining. Dear Evan Hansen examined youthful despair — and how fictional creations on social media take on a life of their own. Broadway’s Choir Boy, now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, is a chamber piece that exposes the vulnerabilities and struggles of teenage boys coming of age.

Here, African Americans at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, specifically those in the choir, wrestle with friendship, sexuality, desire and their futures. The ensemble is uniformly excellent; all possess strong voices and solid acting chops.

The centerpiece is the openly gay Pharus (a standout Jeremy Pope) who doesn’t rat out Bobby, his bully (J. Quinton Johnson), the nephew of the headmaster (Chuck Cooper). Bobby has his own issues, and often spars with his uncle, who tries in his official capacity to navigate understanding with adult expectations.

Choir Boy addresses a larger examination of African American manhood and identity, handled with sensitivity by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who won an Oscar for his adapted screenplay of “Moonlight.”

The musical, which offers a range of vocal styles and Camille A. Brown’s sharp choreography, weaves in moving moments of heartache and longing. The discussion of gospel spirituals’ relevance is particularly noteworthy. Pharus promotes an updated perspective that defies more traditional understandings.

What’s interesting is that McCraney has a white historian, Mr. Pendleton (Austin Pendleton), become the voice for civil rights. His anger at the casual use of the “n” word is a high point in a show that often approaches serious themes in a poetic way.

Actors Nicholas L. Ashe, Caleb Eberhardt as a scholarship student hoping to become a pastor, and John Clay III as Pharus’ compassionate roommate, are also perfectly cast.

Director Trip Cullman is adept at exposing toxic masculinity, while grappling with the boys’ desires for self-expression amid pressures to conform. It’s telling that Choir Boy begins and ends with “trust and obey.” Even as they strive for personal freedom, Pharus and his classmates are trapped by emotional and societal realities. 

Yet together, they produce a memorable and poignant production.

Separately, Nederlands Dans Theater begins its 2019 U.S. tour with a New York premiere of four works, at City Center November 16-19. House choreographers Sol León and Paul Lightfoot will be represented, alongside American premieres by associate choreographers Marco Goecke and Edward Clug.

The programs include Wir sagen uns Dunkles by Goecke, Sad Case, by León and Lightfoot, mutual comfort by Clug and SH-Boom! by León and Lightfoot.

Founded in 1978, Nederlands Dans Theater’s current offerings utilize classical and alt-rock music, finding humor and beauty in personal connections. The company, based in The Hague, performs for more than 115,000 visitors yearly. Its multimedia performances are known for innovative choreography and set design.

The UK’s Dancing Times has praised the company’s “articulated, knife-edge virtuosity.”—Fern Siegel