In 2013, “Choir Boy” wowed audiences with its lyrical, striking portrayal of a gutsy senior fighting to find his voice in a boarding school gospel choir. The drama, filled with soulful, a cappella songs — but don’t call it a musical — was written by a relative unknown named Tarell Alvin McCraney.
Since then McCraney’s stock has skyrocketed, largely due to his Oscar-winning screenplay for “Moonlight” a couple of years ago. So it’s no surprise that the powers that be at the Manhattan Theatre Club decided to revamp the show and bring it to Broadway, in an elegant production helmed by the original director, Trip Cullman.
Cullman wisely brought back Jeremy Pope in the lead role of Pharus. Pope’s deft evocation of the effeminate tenor, who faces homophobia and hatred as he assumes his well-earned spot as choir director, has only deepened over time. If you want to see Pope, catch him before he departs on February 24 to star in “Ain’t Too Proud” on Broadway.
Young Pharus has the deck stacked heavily against him. Not only is he a teen on the cusp of manhood navigating peer pressure, but he’s also a gay black male figuring out how to forge an identity that feels authentic. Pope imbues the challenging role with a blend of sass, shame, and profound dignity.
Not that “Choir Boy,” drawn from McCraney’s own childhood, is merely a coming of age, coming out story. The elite, largely black Drew Prep School for Boys has a strict code of conduct. The boys, under the firm hand of Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper), do their best to balance religion, honor, and raging hormones, all while testing the boundaries of masculinity.
Pharus’ cruel nemesis, Bobby, is a “legacy” student (Headmaster Marrow is his uncle) and enjoys all the perks that come with it. Bobby thinks he’s immune to the consequences of bullying Pharus with ugly homophobic slurs. Pharus would rather suffer in silence than be a snitch, which would break the honor code. Bobby, as embodied by J. Quinton Johnson, is no one-note villain — he’s got emotional pressures of his own.
In this all-male universe, the boys establish a range of complex bonds. David (Caleb Eberhardt), the conflicted introvert who’s set his sights on becoming a minister, develops a crush on another student. At first, Pharus’ strapping roommate (John Clay III), a baseball star and fellow choir boy, registers as a protective big brother. But could their friendship blossom into something more?
Naturally, disciplinarian Headmaster Marrow is a father figure, and the guest lecturer displays paternal qualities as well. He’s a disheveled genius, played by none other than the veteran dramatist Austin Pendleton, who slyly shakes up the boys’ routine and challenges them to stretch their horizons.
“Choir Boy” explores the vagaries of homophobia. Bobby and his sidekick, Junior (Nicholas L. Ashe, also from the original run), are inseparable, so much that their relationship has a whiff of queerness. Pharus has been a pariah for acting swishy since he was eight years old, yet hasn’t had a true homosexual experience.
“Don’t gay mean to be with another man. You seen that?,” Pharus asks his roommate. “Sick of people calling me something I ain’t doing. I’m just Pharus.”
What really sets this show apart are the alternately joyous and prayerful musical numbers, masterfully integrated into the proceedings. Stripped down to the barest of essentials, without a note of music, the gospel and pop-soul songs cut to the bone. The bittersweet music unifies the disparate students, underscoring their shared humanity. The most powerful was a heart-wrenching version of “Motherless Child,” sung in the locker room by boys feeling light years away from their own mamas.
In a duet complete with intentionally hokey choreography by Camille A. Brown, Bobby and Junior sing a song that echoes the boy’s journey: “Through mistakes we learn to gather wisdom, life’s responsibility falls in our hands.”
The tune rings a bell; is it an old spiritual? Nope. As Pharus eagerly explains, it’s the late 1980s hit “Boys to Men” sung by New Edition.
CHOIR BOY | Manhattan Theatre Club | Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.| Through Mar. 10: Tue.-Wed., Sun. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $79-$249 at ChoirBoyBroadway.com | One hr., 45 mins., no intermission