Believe the buzz. “Choir Boy,” the small but mighty coming-of-age play by Tarell Alvin McCraney (“The “Brother/Sister Plays”) that melted frosty British hearts at the Royal Court last year, deserves its kudos. An all-American cast captures the bristling tensions at a prestigious prep school for African American boys when a flamboyantly gay youth is named leader of their celebrated gospel choir. Terrific young actor-singers, some barely out of school themselves, not only make angelic choristers, they also pitch themselves into a hot debate on the meaning and value of gospel music. Could this be another “History Boys”? Could be.
With its mission of creating “strong, ethical black men,” the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys can’t afford to break with tradition. Not only do the boys still dress in uniform khakis, shirts, ties and blazers and sport regulation haircuts, they call their elders “sir” and actually obey them. It says so right in their official school song, “Trust and Obey,” which opens the show and establishes the formal song-scene-song structure that helmer Trip Cullman scrupulously observes in this sleek production.
So Headmaster Marrow (the barrel-chested Chuck Cooper, exuding benign authority) is taking a big chance when he chooses Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope), an audaciously effeminate junior to lead the school’s choir of assertively straight lads in next year’s 50th anniversary graduation ceremonies. But the headmaster recognizes in Pharus the rare talent to lead the choir beyond its formal limits and into exciting new territory — if he can just contain those “limp wrist” antics that have made this brainy boy the school outcast.
Pharus is no political rebel, as is made quite clear by young Pope, who may be fresh out of school but hits his mark with this galvanic debut performance. But because his girly mannerisms are no more than a giddy expression of his natural exuberance, the kid can’t help being provocative. Shunned by everyone but his roommate, Anthony James (a cool, collected perf from Grantham Coleman), a country boy and lanky star athlete who is too mature to be intimidated by adolescent bullies, Pharus consoles himself with the music that gives meaning and comfort to his life.
Pharus’s elevation to choir leader is all the excuse needed for his envious rival, Bobby Marrow (a nice robust perf from Wallace Smith), to launch a bitter hate campaign against him. Tensions become so fraught that the headmaster asks Mr. Pendleton (Austin Pendleton, basking in a role that suits all his endearing quirks), who has come out of retirement to teach a course in “creative thinking,” to serve as the choir’s faculty advisor.
Mr. Pendleton doesn’t have much luck curbing the animal spirits that make any prep school a harrowing experience for sensitive students. But in a pivotal scene that’s much too short, the old professor (who doesn’t even sing) elicits a lively debate on the spiritual power of gospel music — quite a hot topic as it turns out. And it’s through his encouragement that the boys learn to express their deepest, most private feelings through song, proving Pharus’s debate point that spirituals can’t be confined to history because they have never lost their power to comfort and heal.
Although McCraney has a dazzling way with contempo dialogue, the characters who deliver these lines don’t change all that much. It’s the music that undergoes the most dramatic transformation. In music director Jason Michael Webb’s fresh arrangements, the songs follow an arc from familiar hymns sung in strict choral harmony to less formal, but meaningful solos.
Everyone gets his moment on the musical high wire. Bad-boy Bobby and his baby-boy sidekick, Junior (the angelic Nicholas L. Ashe, just out of high school), get a little goofy playing at being Boys to Men. In one riveting turn by Kyle Beltran, a pious divinity student pretty much opens a vein with the old Skip Scarborough song “I Have Never Been So Much in Love Before.” And the voice of painful experience is heard when the headmaster’s rumbling baritone takes up the old spiritual “Been in the Storm So Long.”
But honestly, when all is said and sung, you’ve never heard a more plaintive sound than the voices of five homesick boys singing themselves to sleep with “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”