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CHOIR BOY: But Not Story Boy

by | Feb 3, 2024 | Review | 0 comments

The music is sublime. Sublime. But, especially as it’s presented in this production, the script is not.

When Choir Boy started, with Andrew Broderick, who plays the central character, Pharus, singing a cappella, and then, when he was joined, in perfect harmony, by four other singers, I was gobsmacked. Tears welled up. No matter the other things I’m going to say about this show, these guys are talented. Wildly so.

Penned by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who co-wrote the movie Moonlight, which is based on his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Choir Boy is set in an elite Black Christian academy, the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys.

Pharus’s song is interrupted by a racist and homophobic slur hurled by one of the other students. It takes a while, but we find out that student’s name is Bobby. Bobby’s uncle is the headmaster. Bobby and Pharus both sing in the school’s choir, which specializes in spirituals and gospel music, and is a major fundraising tool for the academy.

This set-up might sound complicated but, as things play out, they’re not. McCraney’s associative writing doesn’t really develop a whole lot. In class, Pharus challenges the accepted wisdom that spirituals are coded “maps” about how to escape from slave plantations. Bobby accuses Pharus of calling their ancestors liars. This is interesting as far as it goes, but the content of the debate is an island unto itself.

The headmaster, Mr. Marrow, is torn between his desire to protect Pharus and the necessity of protecting the school’s endowment. Again, this is an idea that arises from the situation — without being attached to a clear and engaging plot.

And the basic dynamic, Bobby’s abuse in a homophobic system, gets repetitive.

The presentational style that director Mike Payette has set for this production exacerbates the sense that the script isn’t grounded. The actors, who are using mics, are projecting way more than they need to. Every emotional response is clearly — and broadly — drawn.

That said, there are strengths within the performances. Playing Pharus, Broderick hits all the right, queeny comic notes and he finds the available layers in Pharus’s interior life. As embodied by Kwaku Okyere, I never doubted the authenticity of Bobby’s rage. And Savion Roach’s sincerity makes Anthony, Pharus’s sweet jock of a roommate, an oasis of tenderness.

I just wanted it all to add up to more.

Still, the singing is almost always flawless. Broderick’s tenor is angelic and his embellishments fearless. Anthony Heard, who’s playing a conflicted character named David, possesses a velvety voice that’s one of the most pleasing in the cast. And Clarence “CJ” Jura, who plays Bobby’s sidekick Junior, knocked me out. When he sings, it’s as if his baritone is wrapping itself around you and lifting you up.

Especially given the subject matter, if the writing and direction had been as strong as the singing, this show would have wiped me out. But they weren’t and it didn’t.

CHOIR BOY by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Mike Payette. On Thursday, February 1. Co-produced by Canadian Stage and the Arts Club Theatre. Running at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage until February 25. Tickets

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