‘Choir Boy’ review: Tarell Alvin McCraney triumphs with engrossing, poignant drama

"Choir Boy" stars, from left, Nicholas L. Ashe, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope, Caleb Eberhardt and John Clay III.
"Choir Boy" stars, from left, Nicholas L. Ashe, J. Quinton Johnson, Jeremy Pope, Caleb Eberhardt and John Clay III. Photo Credit: The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

‘Choir Boy’ runs through Feb. 17 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. 261 W. 47th St., manhattantheatreclub.com.

Two years since playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney won the best adapted screenplay Oscar for “Moonlight," his lyrical drama “Choir Boy” has finally arrived on Broadway in an engrossing production by Manhattan Theatre Club, which also presented the play Off-Broadway in 2013.

Like “Moonlight,” “Choir Boy” is a coming-of-age story about a gay black teen as he explores his identity and is confronted with verbal and physical abuse, but it occurs in a very different context.

Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope, sassy, swaggering and sensitive) is the lead of the choir at Charles R. Drew Prep School for young black men. At the start of the play, as Pharus takes the stage at a graduation ceremony and sings the school anthem, a fellow student throws him off balance with a homophobic slur.

When confronted by the headmaster (Chuck Cooper, broadly expressive) about the incident, Pharus initially declines to name the guilty party, citing the school’s unofficial honor code, which prohibits snitching.

The bulk of the play examines Pharus and his fellow students over the course of the following school year, during which Pharus remakes the choir in a pop-gospel style and the other choir members uneasily react to Pharus’ uninhibited flamboyance and cocky self-assurance, culminating in a violent episode.

Scattered throughout the play are gloriously harmonized, aggressively choreographed choral sequences, which serve a function similar to the songs in “Spring Awakening,” in providing the young characters with an outlet to express their pent-up emotions. I seriously hope the production receives a cast album.

The play also contains quite a lot of locker room nudity, although full frontal views are carefully blocked. Although somewhat excessive, the environment gives the characters a private space in which their vulnerabilities are heightened and they are free of authority figures.

Some of the plot twists are outright bizarre, and other moments are left decidedly murky, which adds to the play’s sense of mystery. 

In any event, “Choir Boy” (under the taut direction of Trip Cullman) makes for highly engrossing, personal and poignant theater. It is a smashing start to the new year on Broadway.

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