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Choir Boy review at Samuel J Friedman Theatre, New York – ‘Tarell Alvin McCraney’s superb Broadway debut’

The cast of Choir Boy at Samuel J Friedman Theatre, New York. Photo: Matthew Murphy

The new play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, winner of the best adapted screenplay Oscar for Moonlight, is set in the Charles R Drew Prep School for Boys, an African-American boarding school.

Addressing issues of class, privilege, and homophobia within this community of colour, the play combines humour with pathos.

McCraney deftly charts the delicate emotional terrain in which teen boys fumbling towards adulthood wrestle with their masculinity, sexuality, and each other. Since its premiere off-Broadway in 2013, McCraney has smoothed out the plot and developed his characters. This revival marks his Broadway debut.

Director Trip Cullman’s production balances playfulness with an increasing sense of tension between these young men. At the centre of this tumult is the boundary-testing, precocious Pharus (Jeremy Pope), teen leader of the school’s gospel choir, who wants nothing more than to be an honourable “Drew man.” But it’s an open secret he’s gay which creates friction with his classmates and community.

Pope’s Pharus uses his flamboyance and beaming smile as his armour but his childlike vulnerability can be glimpsed through the chinks. His ally is his gentle, jock roommate AJ, played with sweet, confidence by John Clay III. The overall strong ensemble is bolstered by the comic presence of Nicholas L Ashe – he moves like an energetic toddler not quite in control of his limbs.

Music and movement are central to the production. Camille A Brown’s poetic and triumphant choreography and Jason Michael Webb’s arrangements of traditional black spirituals provide cultural context and connect these boys to their history. These interludes also permit the characters to express themselves in ways that are not verbal – to move beyond words.

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Verdict
Tarell Alvin McCraney makes his Broadway debut with a multilayered and emotionally nuanced play performed by a superb ensemble cast
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