Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy is a coming-of-age story about a young, Black gay man whose greatest love is singing in his school’s choir. In this Philadelphia Theatre Company staging, that’s not surprising: The choir, performing composer, and musical director Crystal Monee Hall’s percussive contemporary arrangements of gospel tunes, is entirely thrilling.
The rest of this Philadelphia premiere, not so much.
McCraney, the recipient of a number of playwriting awards and a prestigious 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, chairs the playwriting department at Yale’s David Geffen School of Drama. He is also the Oscar-winning co-screenwriter, with director Barry Jenkins, of the 2016 film Moonlight. That work, too, was a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story that touched on the charged subject of homophobia.
Choir Boy, which had a brief Broadway run in 2018-19, is set at an elite all-male, all-Black boarding school, the Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys. Akeem Davis bellows his way through the part of Headmaster Marrow, unsure, as the clumsy script keeps asking, if he would rather be respected or feared. The values of the school seem, at best, a work in progress — not unlike its students.
The headmaster’s explosively angry nephew, Bobby (Jeremy Cousar), is one of his principal challenges. Bobby’s main target is the new choir lead, the prickly Pharus, whose obvious gender nonconformity is a provocation. Justen Ross invests the part with stereotypical, over-the-top effeminacy and speaks so rapidly his dialogue is often indecipherable.
Rounding out the choir are Tristan André, as Bobby’s ally Junior; the sympathetic Jamaal Fields-Green as Pharus’ roommate, AJ, and Dana Orange, adding urgency (and singing gorgeously) as the troubled David, who lacks even a phone to call home.
Wandering inexplicably out of retirement and into the school’s conflicts is a white teacher, Mr. Pendleton (PJ Benjamin). His role is to encourage critical thinking and restore harmony, or at least civility, among the five warring boys, in both the classroom and the choir room. With a background in civil rights protest, he means well, but his effectiveness is undercut by his cluelessness about Black youth culture.
Credit (or blame) director and choreographer Jeffrey L. Page, PTC’s resident artist, for the many overwrought performances in this underwritten show. Amping up the drama can’t disguise the gaps in McCraney’s plotting and character development. But the approach certainly keeps the audience awake through Choir Boy’s one-hour, 45-minute running time.
The show’s deficiencies cease to matter when the five choir members burst into song. They are first-class vocalists, and their a cappella renditions of numbers such as the civil rights anthem, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” and the 19th-century spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” are dazzling. Page’s choreography adds a little Motown fizz.
PTC’s evocative physical production is another plus. Scenic and lighting designer Christopher Ash frames the action with pillars arrayed like crosses, underlining the Christian context, and lights the show dynamically in bold neon colors that suggest stained glass. Nothing subtle here, either, but beautiful to behold.
Presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., through March 13. Masks and proof of vaccination, including boosters for those eligible, are required. Tickets: $45-$55. Information: www.philatheatreco.org or 215-985-0420.