Review Roundup: Did Critics Sing The Praises Of CHOIR BOY On Broadway?
Make a joyful noise! Today, January 8, Manhattan Theatre Club's Broadway premiere of Choir Boy, written by Academy Award winner Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Drama Desk Award nominee Trip Cullman, opens at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
For half a century, the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys has been dedicated to the education of strong, ethical black men. One talented student has been waiting for years to take his rightful place as the leader of the legendary gospel choir. But can he make his way through the hallowed halls of this institution if he sings in his own key?
The cast features Nicholas L. Ashe (Junior Blake), Daniel Bellomy (Ensemble), Jonathan Burke (Ensemble), Gerald Caesar (Ensemble), John Clay III(Anthony Justin "AJ" James), Chuck Cooper (Headmaster Marrow), Caleb Eberhardt(David Heard), Marcus Gladney (Ensemble), J. Quinton Johnson(Bobby Marrow), Austin Pendleton (Mr. Pendleton) and Jeremy Pope (Pharus Jonathan Young).
Let's see what the critics had to say!
Jesse Green, The New York Times: This is the first of many plot points that feel both obvious and false, like pieces of the wrong puzzle ham-hammered into place. Too frequently, information that if delivered sooner would have forestalled the plot completely is delivered hastily later, as if to sweep it under a dorm bed. In any case, Trip Cullman's tonally blurry staging for the Manhattan Theater Club does not help you understand what to make of such logical inconsistencies, though it is at least swift enough to keep you from dwelling on them. But a similar problem eats away at the credibility of most of the characters as written. Two of the choir boys, Junior (Nicholas L. Ashe of "Queen Sugar") and David (Caleb Eberhardt), get approximately one trait each. Junior is pleasantly dim; David is tortured by something you'll see coming a mile away.
Michael Dale, BroadwayWorld: While the play takes place in contemporary times, McCraney and director Trip Cullman's warmly affectionate tone gives it the kind of nostalgic feel that's familiar to the genre. And the issues that arise in the piece do have a touch of familiarity. What isn't familiar, though, is placing a young gay man of color - one who feels he has nothing to hide - at the center of it all, considerably raising the significance of placing a play like Choir Boy in front of Broadway audiences.
Adam Feldman, Time Out New York: The ending has been revised since Manhattan Theatre Club first presented it Off Broadway in 2013 with much of the same cast-Pope, Ashe, and the excellent Chuck Cooper and Austin Pendleton as adults at the school-but many of the changes are not improvements; the denouement is somehow more explanatory yet less clear. (A pivotal scene of violence is a misstep in Trip Cullman's mostly sure-footed staging.) At its best, though, the play is specific, lyrical and touching: McCraney brings a ringing, unapologetic queer black voice to Broadway, and offers valuable perspective on struggles that have too long been unsung.
David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: Many of the characters are cut from familiar molds - the effeminate gay kid torn between self-affirmation and self-protection; the privileged bully with his own burdens; the closeted loner crippled by anxieties; the sensitive jock. And the microcosm of an exclusive boarding school has often served in theater and film as a prism through which to examine traits prevalent in society at large. But the specificity of a black middle-class milieu, plus the writer's sharp ear for dialogue and his observations on class, race and sexuality, give McCraney's play distinctive qualities that outweigh its more conventional aspects.
Matt Windman, amNY: "Choir Boy" (under the taut direction of Trip Cullman) makes for highly engrossing, personal and poignant theater. It is a smashing start to the new year on Broadway.
Alexis Soloski, The Guardian: There are other tensions operating here, too. McCraney typically layers his stories with myth and archetype. But here he's abandoned most of his poetic and thematic flourishes (barring an on-the-nose speech in which Pharus discusses the beauty of spirituals), working instead in a more naturalistic style that while friendly to Broadway can sometimes feel a little pat. The short scenes tumble on speedily, but it's really only in the clefts between scenes, when the young men step forward, not necessarily in character, and deliver forceful, emotive versions of Rockin' in Jerusalem or Rainbow Round My Shoulder, that the play takes on a real intensity. In these moments Choir Boy ascends and its choirboys achieve, as long as the notes hold, what feels like freedom.
Tim Teeman, The Daily Beast: Choir Boy has grown in theater size since its 2013 off-Broadway success, and some of the elements have grown beautifully in accordance, prime among them Pope's performance. The character never defines himself as gay. He doesn't deny it, and indeed there is evidence later on that he is, or is attracted to men. The shower scenes in the play not only reveal a lot of flesh, but also hidden desires (and more fear). But, he says: "Sick of people calling me something I ain't doing. I'm just Pharus."
Roma Torre, NY1: Tarell Alvin McCraney is an incredibly gifted writer. He penned the Oscar winning screenplay for "Moonlight." And now with "Choir Boy" he flexes his theatrical muscles, proving himself to be an equally talented playwright. The production is a captivatingly intimate portrait of a gay black student trying to find his voice.
Steven Suskin, New York Stage Review: Tarell Alvin McCraney's Choir Boy is a knockout tale of music, homophobia, and racism told in rousing and entertaining manner. Manhattan Theatre Club, which first presented the play in a limited run at their smallest stage in the summer of 2013, has now finally moved it to Broadway-and it's about time! Choir Boy was brave and stunning back then. With an expanded production, a strengthened script, and the return of three of the central actors, McCraney's play is even more powerful now at the Friedman.
Melissa Rose Bernardo, New York Stage Review: That joyful noise you hear arising from the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre is the mellifluous tenor of Jeremy Pope, the golden-voiced actor making his Broadway debut in Tarell Alvin McCraney's tender coming-of-age drama Choir Boy. You might remember Pope from Choir Boy's 2013 off-Broadway premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center Stage II; thankfully, he's returned-along with a few other original cast members, including amiable Tony-winner Chuck Cooper (as a no-nonsense headmaster) and a wonderfully rumpled Austin Pendleton (as a wonderfully rumpled professor named Mr. Pendleton)-to lead McCraney's Choir once more.
Marilyn Stasio, Variety: McCraney has an ear for schoolboy vernacular and the confidential bedtime talks between Pharus and Anthony are innocently funny and downright sweet. "Sick of people calling me something I ain't doing," Pharus complains to Anthony about the sexual innuendos. "I'm just Pharus." To which complaint Anthony simply and kindly responds, "Ain't nothing wrong with being Pharus." He's quite right. Pharus is a strange and wonderful character with the courage to be his own exceptional self.
Nick Romano, Entertainment Weekly: With Moonlight still looming so presently in our current cultural conscious, McCraney's past work, accompanied by this brief premise, paints a more solemn coming-of-age tale, which makes the joy that bursts forth from this cast of largely budding talents unexpected and well balanced. In addition to low, from-the-gut laughs, largely coming from Pharus' whip-smart comebacks ("I've never missed a key of G since I was 3"), AJ (John Clay III), Pharus' friend and roommate, offers brotherly warmth and acceptance as a tall, jock baseball player.
Chris Evans, Deadline: When Choir Boy, the coming of age story from Tarell Alvin McCraney that predates his Oscar-winning, co-written screenplay for Moonlight, finds its sweet spots - and they are many - the drama, the humor and the music take off for parts unknown. This is a play that, like its unstoppable main character, never quits reaching for the high note, even when perfection is beyond its grasp.
Barbara Schuler, Newsday: If this is starting to sound like an old story, you are not wrong. It's tempting to throw in the towel on the overdose of teenage angst we've seen on and off Broadway in recent years. Fortunately, this show redeems itself with magnificent a cappella vocals and spot-on performances from the uniformly strong cast, guided by Trip Cullman, who also directed the piece when it ran at MTC's second stage in 2013.
Sara Holdren, Vulture: Director Trip Cullman has a buoyant feel for the play's comedy and, along with arranger and music director Jason Michael Webb, he gives Choir Boy's songs the front-and-center treatment they deserve. The play is an undercover, and gorgeous, a cappella musical, kept aloft by the extraordinary vocal talents of its cast.
Nicole Serratore, The Stage:Music and movement are central to the production. Camille A Brown's poetic and triumphant choreography and Jason Michael Webb's arrangements of traditional black spirituals provide cultural context and connect these boys to their history. These interludes also permit the characters to express themselves in ways that are not verbal - to move beyond words.
David Cote, Theater News Online: Jeremy Pope's lead performance is a whirling, glittering thing of beauty - whether breathlessly tossing off McCraney's bitchy double entendres, swooping through solo vocal lines or executing Camille A. Brown's grinding, grooving choreography (based on South African gumboot dance). All the actors deserve high praise for seamlessly meshing on the many musical interludes based on hymns and spirituals (written and arranged by Jason Michael Webb), which are expertly woven into the naturalism of the rest of the show by ace director Trip Cullman.