By Sandi Durell
Extremely talented Jeremy Pope as Pharus, is a golden voiced tenor whose bright eyes are always facing up to heaven and has much to say as he makes his way toward graduation as leader of the gospel choir at Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys. In this revival (Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center Stage II -2013) of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s spirited and heart warming drama, currently at the Samuel J. Freidman Theatre, you’ll many times feel you’ve been warmly wrapped in the arms of the spirituals sung in gorgeous harmonies . . . from “Motherless Child” to “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” along with the school song “Trust and Obey” that opens and closes the show. It is this school song where we meet Pharus who is being taunted by Bobby (J. Quinton Johnson), the nephew of the pedantic Headmaster Marrow (Tony winner perfect Chuck Cooper), who continually interrupts his singing hissing out the N and F words.
Pharus is adept at staying alive and focused and armed with an endless array of wisecracks and comebacks to stave off his homophobic classmates and especially Bobby who is constantly maddened by Pharus’ gay demeanor. Having to answer to the Headmaster who feels both protective of his unruly nephew but wants to help Pharus because of his exquisite musical talent, presents on-going issues. It is these confrontations that also bring some real gut laughs throughout, i.e. Pharus’ remark “I’ve never missed a key of G since I was 3.” Luckily Pharus’ roommate AJ (John Clay III) is a loving, caring and accepting friend who provides solace when needed.
Marrow decides to bring in professor Austin Pendleton (nicely rumpled and sidetracked) to challenge the boys in creative thought and help them “think outside the box . . .pick a theory. . . and challenge it” – – the white man who provides many humorous turns as the confrontation between Bobby and Pharus reaches new heights when Pharus brings his perspective on gospel spirituals and slavery in Civil War era that the songs contained coded messages that helped the slaves survive and escape – – fitting and proper, as it is the music that frees him and several of the boys. As this ‘creative thought’ lesson goes awry, Pendleton soothes by asking the boys to bring in a song which presents some really funny takes and fabulous performances from many, like headed for disaster David (Caleb Eberhardt) who does a heart rending turn on L.T.D’s “Love Ballad,” and Junior Davis’ (Nicholas L. Ashe) delivery of a Boyz II Men routine.
You’ll hear some glorious spirituals, peppered with many insightful performances, in this coming of age story directed by Trip Cullman who keeps a sharp eye on the fun stuff, with David Zinn’s well thought out scenic and costume designs, lighting by Peter Kaczorowski and notably strong choreography by Camille A. Brown. Other cast members include Daniel Bellomy, Jonathan Burke, Gerald Caesar and Marcus Gladney.
Photos: Matthew Murphy
Choir Boy runs thru February 24, run time 1 hr. 35 min. – Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47 Street. www.choirboybroadway.com