Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Rebecca's review of Beautiful - The Carole King Musical
The basic narrative of Choir Boy is fairly straightforward. Pharus (Justen Ross) is an ambitious and talented student who has been tapped to lead the choir during his senior year at the elite Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys. He is also gay and trying to find his voice in an institution filled with stolid professors and irascible young men. Pharus has to deal with tepid support from his headmaster Marrow (Akeem Davis) and outright provocation from classmates and chorus members Bobby (Jeremy Cousar) and Junior (Tristan André). Fortunately, Pharus has at least one true friend and supporter in roommate AJ (Jamaal Fields-Green).
Ross displays both dazzling confidence and profound frustration as Pharus. His superb performance calls to mind a preppier version of Lil Nas X., the pop music sensation. Paternal, sympathetic, and frequently frustrated, Akeem Davis is every well meaning high school administrator. Cousar is appropriately detestable as this legacy admission and homophobic jerk, but he gives Bobby enough motivation and complexity to keep things interesting. André is genuine and infinitely relatable as Bobby's reluctant sidekick Junior, who just wants to keep his head down and get his school work done. Dana Orange plays fellow student and choir member David with a haunting sense of bewilderment. The cast's interactions feel natural and their timing is spot on.
That precision timing is on full display during the frequent musical interludes that move the play beyond standard narrative and into spaces more spiritual and abstract. Hall's audacious arrangements of spirituals and hymns resonate bone deep. Voices blend together seamlessly, and the ensemble is rhythmically in perfect sync. Their passionate singing is enhanced by Page's powerful choreography. Page incorporates Juba dance into the movement and music. Daniel Ison's sound design is impeccable.
A few of these numbers are performed as part of the plot–graduation performances or choir practice–but most of the songs stand apart from the action. These songs pause the story and take the audience to a place where the music can be appreciated for its own sake. It can be a bit disorienting, but also contributes to the play's fanciful dream-like quality.
Christopher Ash's stunning stage and lighting designs are similarly uncanny. The captivating minimalist set uses shape and light to create a strange sense of space and distance. The dynamic lighting correlates to the shifting mood as much as any location. It is incredible art, but the abstract minimalism of the set does not mean it lacks practical functionality. In fact, the artistic design is extremely functional, requiring minimal shifting to clearly delineate changing locations with perfect clarity.
Ash's surreal designs and Hall's musical interludes are not the only fantastical aspects of the production. Prior to 1970 there were more than 100 Black boarding schools in the United states; there are currently only four, and they are co-ed. Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys feels like a throwback to that era as well as an aspirational glimpse into the future. The critical thinking class taught by Mr. Pendelton (PJ Benjamin is the perfect well-meaning old white man) is a rhetorical opportunity for the characters to discuss their own struggles and elucidate the themes running through the play. There are moments when the pace drags a bit or when what's going on is not completely clear, but they do not detract from the show's overall impact.
Uplifting and heartbreaking. Aspirational and urgent. Transcendent and essential. Choir Boy is like nothing I have seen before.
Choir Boy runs through March 13, 2022, at Philadelphia Theatre Company, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia PA. PTC continues its 10Tix program, supported by PNC Arts Alive, providing a select number of seats at $10 for every performance. For tickets and information, please visit www.philatheatreco.org or call 215-985-0420.