MANHATTAN THEATRE CLUB AT SAMUEL J. FRIEDMAN THEATRE
It's been six years since actor Jeremy Jordan enjoyed a rare splash on Broadway: he starred in two new musicals (Bonnie & Clyde and Newsies) within weeks of each other. A star was born. (Ok, it was born the moment he took the stage at the Papermill Playhouse where Newsies debuted. But you get the idea.) Much the same appears to be happening for Jeremy Pope, who stars on Broadway right now in Choir Boy (a play with a lot of singing). And a few weeks from now, he'll be starring in the hotly touted Temptations musical Ain't Too Proud To Beg? Is lightning going to strike twice? And if so, will every parent dreaming of musical theater start naming their sons Jeremy?
It's also the Broadway debut for Oscar-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. He won the Academy Award for co-writing the screenplay of Moonlight. McCraney also wowed critics with the bold, experimental and moving trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays at the Public Theater.
Prepare to be wowed? Not quite. The strong cast led by Pope and the graceful presentation by director Trip Cullman and his design team is what one would hope for. But Choir Boy proves far more conventional and uninspired than one might expect. It's the same old song given a new but unconvincing arrangement. And if you're eager to point out that's a hit by the Four Tops (and not the Temptations), I'd applaud you and suggest that's precisely the attention to detail that Choir Boy lacks.
Pharus Jonathan Young (Pope) is the golden-voiced member of the choir at an exclusive prep school catering to young men of color. He is very excited about taking a lead role in the ensemble and maybe breaking precedent by taking a solo at his own graduation. Pharus is also very gay. He is out, sort of, because being in is simply not much of an option for him. Pharus is proud and discrete at the same time, a tricky balancing act he manages with humor, defiance and by following the rules of the school both official (hey, no romance!) and unspoken (no ratting out a fellow student).
Most students just shake their heads at Pharus sometimes being a little too open. But Bobby Marrow, the nephew of the headmaster, can't stand Pharus and they butt heads constantly. When Bobby disrupts practice once too often, Pharus calls for a group vote and Bobby is ousted, creating even more tension between the two. Toss in a fellow student who is preparing for a life in ministry and a new (white) teacher who oversees the choir and you've got plenty of material for a drama, all of it pretty obvious. Sadly, Choir Boy follows the old script of a tragic but noble gay character, the repressed religious figure, and a stalwart straight best friend. It never surprises. The cast and presentation elevate the proceedings, but not enough to mask the play's essential flaws.
Beyond the charismatic ensemble, the best part of the show is the music, mostly old spirituals and an original posing as the school's theme song. They are woven into the action with simplicity and ease. Choreographer Camille A. Brown and Cullman keep the 100 minute show moving briskly and seamlessly between story and song. While the connections to the drama aren't always obvious to me, they were clearly chosen with care and feel of a piece with the action.
The highpoint of the show is a locker room scene. Bobby (played gruffly and a little too obviously by J. Quinton Johnson) has been touchy throughout over any mention of his mother. Indeed, when the would-be preacher David (Caleb Eberhardt) references her and Bobby's hackles rise, he immediately apologizes and says he forgot. Dead? A disgrace? It's not quite clear but Bobby's mom is a source of pain for him. In the locker-room David starts singing "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child" directly to Bobby. (That answers that question, since now we know Bobby's mom is dead.)
It's an entreaty, a peace-offering and an invitation to grieve and heal all at once. The rest of the cast freeze in tension and empathy. David keeps singing and offering it up to Bobby...and finally Bobby takes the lead. Soon, the rest of the choir are joining in on harmony to support him. It's touching and powerful. And then Pharus steps in and starts show-boating on vocals until Bobby and everyone else stop singing and leave in disgust. Only Pharus' roommate A.J. (John Clay III) stays behind to shake his head and chide him. Everything about this scene is good. It's the best use of a spiritual and music in general. It moves the story forward meaningfully. And it complicates our hero, letting us know however much we sympathize with him, Pharus is human and can be brash and self-centered at times too.
But later in the play, this dramatic peak is undercut when we're supposed to believe Pharus had NO IDEA that Bobby's mom is dead. Since everyone else knows and Bobby is the nephew of the headmaster, his life is already an open book and if his mom weren't there for a school event it would be pretty obvious even to Pharus, that's hard to believe. And if true, it makes the earlier scene pointless: Pharus wasn't interrupting a precious healing moment; as far as he knew. he was just joining in on a song after Bobby and others had their turn.
Other problems abound, including the saintly AJ, a straight dude in high school so comfortable with himself he both straddles his roomie Pharus to tickle him and then swiftly takes in stride the inadvertent arousal that follows. Even more problematic is the new white teacher played by Austin Pendleton. The actor does his best and as usual is appealing and believable on stage. But what should be an unconventional shaking up of the choir (they've been on their own) proves quite beside the point: about the only meaningful step he takes is to assign them an assignment to learn a favorite song of their parents. This character might have created tension, proven a role model for Pharus, brought the two warring students together or a million other things. And yet, he does nothing. Indeed, when the teacher gets upset over a string of slurs voiced by Bobby, it was hard to tell if he was more upset by the N word or the F word. (Given his immediate understanding when the preacher-to-be references wanting to learn more about the Biblical King David, I'd go with the latter.)
It all ends much as one would expect, more's the pity. Despite the constant flow of music, even the setting of a choir seems beside the point. Pharus has one great scene discussing old spirituals. Yet accept for that locker room scene, the real joy of a choir is absent. Most of the music interludes are dropped into the show, not part of it. We don't see the young men working on an arrangement, learning a new song, striving to make their voices blend together. While Pharus yearns to solo at graduation, he might just as well be striving to deliver a speech as the student with the best academic record or strive to win the big game. It's a goal, but a generic one.
Still, the cast makes you believe. Chuck Cooper breathes life into every moment he's on stage as the headmaster. And the students are a strong ensemble, from Nicholas L. Ashe as the bouncy Junior to Johnson's stolid, dependable AJ. But just as Jeremy Jordan's appearance in Bonnie & Clyde was just a precursor of things to come, we can expect both Jeremy Pope and Tarell Alvin McCraney to be back on Broadway in far better style. Hey, the same was true with that Motown act. Their debut was the so-so Meet The Temptations. But with talent like this, the sky's the limit.
THEATER OF 2019
Frankenstein: Under The Radar Fest at the Public ** 1/2
Minor Character: Under The Radar Festival at the Public ***
Ink: Under The Radar Festival at the Public ** 1/2
Choir Boy ** 1/2
Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.