Monday, December 17, 2018

Preview thoughts on Choir Boy

I have no idea why I didn't catch Choir Boy when it played off-Broadway a few years ago.  It was a new play - I try to see them all.  I guess it was just one of those things; I mean, I can't see everything!  There are a few things that are going to close by the end of this year that I'm just not going to get to.  I always have to take a deep breath and think 'it is what it is' and not get down on myself.  I'm ever so glad, though, that I took a theater pal up on her invitation to accompany her to an early preview of the Broadway production of Choir Boy, though!  I LOVED it!  And now I feel as if I need repeat visits...

I highly doubt the playwright, Tarell Alvin McCraney (Oscar winner for Moonlight) will be doing much revising for the Broadway run, but the show is in early previews, so I'll only offer a few thoughts.  There may even be a rant about my seat neighbors somewhere.  We had excellent orchestra seats, via TDF, for the show and I do love the Friedman Theatre.  The sightlines are always good and the seats are very comfy.  Thankfully, we were in the middle of the row, so no one had to climb over us at any point.  My theater pal and I had a very nice brunch at the Glass House Tavern pre-show and got into our seats with plenty of time to spare.

Choir Boy begins at a boys' school graduation and a sweet young man comes down front and center to sing the school song.  He has an air of joy about him and he sings absolutely beautifully.  Before he finishes the song, another member of the choir has called the sweet young man a homophobic slur and everything stops.  Everything also starts from there.

photo credit: Joan Marcus
Jeremy Pope plays that sweet young man and he is an absolute revelation.  I've seen him onstage before, but my goodness, he is simply fantastic as Pharus Young, who is now a senior at a private boys' school called Drew, and he has just been named leader of the choir, which is all he has ever dreamed of being.  (wow, that's a long sentence, sorry.)  The member of the choir who whispered the slur is Bobby, an entitled young man who is a legacy student at Drew.  He is also the nephew of the headmaster.  He is also a snob who looks down on scholarship students.  Oh, and he is also a homophobe.  Pharus never directly states that he is gay, but to loosely quote Jane Austen, " was every day implied but never declared."  After Bobby ridiculed Pharus during the school song, Pharus used his power to have Bobby removed from the choir, so there is much strain throughout the play.

Other students at the school include Junior (a follower of Bobby), David (another scholarship student who dreams of being a minister), and A.J., Pharus' roommate and a star athlete.  Chuck Cooper is wonderful as the headmaster and dear Austin Pendleton, who got a pretty big round of star-entrance-applause, plays a retired instructor who comes back to help prepare the boys for graduation.  He is also, as always, first-rate.  He had a scene that really shook me, in a grand way.  Everyone in the cast is incredible.  Truly.  I was especially taken with John Clay III, who played A.J., and found just the right balance of bewilderment about and empathy for his high-spirited roommate.

I don't really want to give too much away, because I found the story so incredibly moving, I feel as if you should experience it for yourselves.  I was practically heaving with wonderful theater-sobs by the end.  But I do want to say that alongside the terrific dialogue and performances, there are several song/movement sequences that took my breath away.  All of these young men are superlative singers and hearing their voices blend in choral harmony was just awe-inspiring and a wonderful metaphor for how the world (and that boys' school) should be.  The hymns were just glorious.  If you do some searching on social media, you can find clips of their singing.  I heard a rumor going around the theater yesterday that they're trying to put together a cast album - I will be first in line to buy it if it happens.

So...go go go go go see Choir Boy.  You absolutely will not regret it.  As far as my seat neighbors are concerned, I was disappointed in many of them.  There was much laughter where it honestly didn't belong.  It didn't, to me, seem like nervous laughter, it seemed like people really laughing about the sexual content in the play.  It was like being in high school, instead of watching a play about it.  There were several scenes that took place in a locker room and I was terrified during one of them, which I'm pretty sure was the intent.  I knew that whatever decision was made would be a perilous one and people were laughing.  I just wanted to cry - I guess I was sitting with a particularly non-empathetic group of people, but it made me so sad.  I hope that kind of behavior isn't at all of the performances; I mean, there is a lot of humor in the show and there are some real belly-laughs, but when people are only laughing at the homophobic slurs...I don't know.  I had to wonder why they were even there.  Maybe it was just me.  But I found the story so touching and real and simply beautiful.  I'm looking forward to returning to the Friedman Theatre to experience Choir Boy again.

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