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Choir Boy

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Choir Boy
Jeremy Pope, Kyle Beltran, Nicholas L. Ashe, Wallace Smith, and Grantham Coleman
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Have you ever known someone who's tone deaf? No, not someone who's merely not a good (or even decent) singer, but a person who is literally incapable of discerning or matching a pitch? If you have, you know that the results of his or vocalizing can be bewildering or even terrifying, though the person behind that one-in-a-million voice frequently has a great work ethic and an even better attitude. Taken to its furthest extreme and reimagined as a stage work, such a soul could very well be Tarell Alvin McCraney's play Choir Boy, which just opened at City Center in a Manhattan Theatre Club production.

McCraney's almost-tin ear this time around is rather startling given the maestro-like command of theatrical language he's demonstrated in the past. In his previous major New York outings, The Brother/Sister Plays and Wig Out!, he harnessed the rhythms and melodies of juicy times and places, and their inhabitants, to unlock a lyricism both piercingly precise and enveloping in its universality. He didn't just depict these communities — he made you a part of them.

So for this venture, set in a prestigious religious boarding school for African-American boys, there's every reason to anticipate McCraney would work the same magic. Such a closed system, in which the fiery passions of late adolescence are constantly abutting the dying embers of adulthood, even as one group is slowly transforming into the other, would be the perfect proving ground for McCraney to unleash the ebullient strains of the young on the conservative tones of the old — regardless of the details of the story he ended up telling. What actually emerges from that story, about five boys in the school's esteemed choral group, is less compelling and more muddled.

McCraney's central question is a sufficiently heavy one, however: about expectations, and the challenges of meeting them in spite of your worse nature. Pharus (Jeremy Pope) is barely closeted, but dreams of leading the Charles R. Drew Prep School's renowned choir and becoming a storied "Drew man" of yore. He rooms with the handsome and athletic A.J. (Grantham Coleman), on whom he harbors more than a mild crush. Bobby (Wallace Smith) is fighting against a tragic home life while under the watchful, disapproving gaze of his headmaster uncle (Chuck Cooper). Junior (Nicholas L. Ashe) is Bobby's friend and hanger-on; David (Kyle Beltran) is set on becoming a priest.

But any time any combination of these forces engages in a battle, no one seems to be armed with anything heavier than spitballs. Pharus is depicted, from his opening seconds crooning the school's cherished song, as being so comfortable with himself that it's difficult to accept him as the emotional victim the script frequently requires. Bobby's chief trait is flying off into a fiery rage whenever anyone mentions his mother, but aside from serving as Pharus's hyper-masculine, traditionalist foil, he doesn't do a whole lot else. A.J.'s resplendent saintliness is omnipresent and never developed, explored, or challenged. David's quiet faith is largely ignored until it's needed to nudge a particular plot point; and Junior's unformed character is ignored even when he reaches that point.

So scattered is everything that you're rarely sure McCraney is aware of what he's trying to say or how he's trying to say it. That no one exhibits any poetic grace is perhaps understandable; high-schoolers are rarely as deep as they think they are, after all. But a dose of it might have helped give life to the mundane scenes that choke the work in its endless middle sections. Or better justify the use of hymns and other songs that appear throughout: They relate, usually directly, to what's unfolding and cast attractive echoes that underscore the complex role of religion in these people's lives, but too often they feel like crutches intended to promote a musicality the writing cannot otherwise provide on its own.

Director Trip Cullman does not provide much additional help; he's provided a thoroughly lubricated staging on David Zinn's red-box set (which Peter Kaczorowski has adequately lit) that doesn't give many of the scenes the time they need to breathe and register as more than staccato ornamentation. This mindset has spread to the actors, too, who deliver big effects without the underpinnings of pain that ought to define each person onstage. Beltran is saddled with an eye-rolling role, but he and Ashe are the only two who project the proper on-the-edge naïveté these teenagers need for everything to really make sense.

Choir Boy
Jeremy Pope with Chuck Cooper
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Though he strains early on, Pope makes a solid lynchpin, and contrasts well with both Smith, who's appropriately primal as Bobby, and Coleman, who hasn't done enough to make A.J. more of a person than an ideal. But none of them are believable as teenagers, which leaves their more intense interactions oscillating between cruel and clueless, undoubtedly not when McCraney was going for. Cooper is much better at channeling deceptive innocence into a complete portrayal of someone who doesn't know he's in over his head — just what the others need to do.

Insight burns only intermittently, but on its appearances it suggests the powerful exploration of having to fight for personal convictions in the face of great institutional adversity that Choir Boy could have been. Pharus and Bobby have a gripping confrontation in one class, when they argue whether spirituals truly contain coded messages to slaves. And the school's sole white professor (Austin Pendleton, a bit disjointed but basically fine) movingly rages against the boys' rapid-fire deployments of the word "nigga" — something that had a darker and more tragic meaning when he marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights era.

He knows what the young men don't: that good intentions only get you so far, and that living up to expectations rather than falling prisoner to them means taking decisive, specific action at the proper time. It's a lesson McCraney could learn from, too, given how much trouble Choir Boy has staying on pitch.


Choir Boy
Through July 21
New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: nycitycenter.org