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But just how prepared for him is this prominently religious, educational institution that has yet to condone or even acknowledge sexual diversity? Although the first disarming appearance by Pharus is positioned to encourage both affection and a little benign laughter, it is the use of the "n" word by a peer as the play progresses that brings some unexpected "oohs" from a few members in the audience.
It is always difficult to anticipate or gauge how a New York audience will react to a play despite it being previously acclaimed in London. The recent head-line making event, in which Southern cooking TV personality Paula Dean was charged with racism and for her use of the "n" word was evidently at the fore in audience members' minds.
Of course there is a difference when that deplorable euphemism is used by a white person to denigrate someone who is black. It is here embraced by African-Americans who have branded it liberating by taking on its ownership in order to neutralize its original intent. What essentially isn't yet embraced as acceptable by school's administration or its students is Pharus's sexual identity or his commendable ownership of it.
Our attention and interest in the talented Pharus is immediate as he steps forward to sing the traditional school song at a commencement exercise in a manner that is both stunningly effeminate and potentially incendiary. Although Pharus is the talented lead singer of the choir as well as an outstanding student, he has no intention of downplaying either his personality or his mannerisms — of course, to the disapproval of the school's administrators and especially to the discomfort of his peers with whom he is obliged to get along.
The play's cleverest device is the use of Gospel music as sung a cappella at choir rehearsals as well as to punctuate dramatic scenes. The contribution made by musical director and vocal arranger Jason Michael Webb warrants high praise.
Premiered to acclaim last September at London's Royal Cort Theatre in a co-production with the Manhattan Theatre Club (our review ), Choir Boy is crisply directed in New York by Trip Cullman. It has a terrific new cast comprising a quintet of fine young actors as the students who also sing beautifully, an authoritarian Chuck Cooper as the school's headmaster, and Austin Pendleton at his most humorously intellectual as a teacher of Creative Thinking. Although the characters of Marrow and Pendelton (that's also the character's name) appear like stock characters that have been wedged into the dilemmas perpetrated by the more psychologically and sociologically complex band of students, they do serve as sturdy bridges over the stormy seas.
Pharus's decision to stand his ground, even as he withstands heckling and the ugly remarks of the disdainfully homophobic Bobby (a compelling Wallace Smith), the headmaster's nephew, is admirable. It is no industry secret that the multi-talented theater veteran Cooper has a splendid voice and gets an opportunity to show it off. He also gets a chance to bellow with conviction as a man committed to maintaining the school's traditional core values and moral principals.
Pope is making one helluva New York debut as the flamboyantly gay Pharus, who is, nevertheless, as discreet as possible about the way he feels about his compassionate but straight roommate Anthony (a strong and sensitive performance by Grantham Coleman.) There is an insightful scene in which Pharus locks historical and political horns with the other boys in Pendleton's classroom over whether or not escape routes were coded into the early spirituals. Pharus also serves as catalyst for the play's most poignant episode involving the quiet and unassuming David (a splendid Kyle Beltran) who may have to do some serious soul searching after an unfortunate encounter that fuels the climactic minutes of the play.
Director Cullman, who recently earned praise for his direction of the challengingly-designed Murder Ballad, has again prompted some exceptional performances from actors working within a difficult space. Set designer David Zinn has made practical use of the small-ish playing area to create various locations in the school, particularly the boy's lockers and shower room and the dorm that emerge impressively from behind a brick wall.
Choir Boy will surprise those expecting the same kind of hyper stylized dramatic form that defined McCraney's The Brother/Sister Plays , the plays that catapulted him to prominence and a plethora of awards. What distinguishes Choir Boy is its unusual and provocative central character, a young man who takes delight in himself and in defense of his sexual identity. It may prove to be an obstacle for him in creating harmony with the voices of people who may be able to shout out the n-word, but find it difficult to proclaim liberation from outdated sexual mores.
The sheer dramatic and musical power that drives Choir Boy is anything but an obstacle for a theatergoer in search of a very good play. . . at a very good price.