Review: CHOIR BOY at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

The long-awaited production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s CHOIR BOY was well worth the wait—now playing through June 24, 2022.

By: Jun. 27, 2022

Review: CHOIR BOY at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

With direction by Kent Gash, Steppenwolf's staging hits all the right notes. Steppenwolf ensemble member Tarell Alvin McCraney's play is is a heartwrenching and tuneful story about Pharus- a young gay Black man who relishes nothing more than his role as the choir lead at the prestigious Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys. Over the course of the play, Pharus navigates that classic adolescent tension between his desire to be fully himself and his wish to be accepted among his peers. McCraney's script beautifully demonstrates this push-and-pull in a way that will universally resonate with audiences, but the story is also incredibly specific to Pharus and his classmates.

CHOIR BOY celebrates the experiences of young Black men, as Charles R. Drew Preparatory School is exclusively their space. And notably the sole white character on stage, the new teacher Mr. Pendleton (William Dick, who finds an interesting balance between cringey and empathetic) feels like an outlier in this academic space that's designed to promote Black excellence and propel these young men into their futures. Arnel Sancianco's set nicely captures the sanctity and formality of the institution-and the prep school setting is flanked by portraits of notable Black men (it's worth noting that former President Barack Obama has the centermost portrait-a decision that was clearly intentional). Kara Harmon's costumes likewise convey the formal atmosphere of the school - and she incorporates certain touches into each character's costume. For example, Pharus's uniform is almost always precisely put together, while his classmate and tormentor Bobby is often onstage with his tie askew.

CHOIR BOY opens with Pharus (Tyler Hardwick) singing a solo at commencement for the class above him, only to be interrupted with distracting slurs from Bobby (Gilbert Domally). THe situation lands Pharus in the office of Headmaster Marrow (La Shawn Banks), who demands to know why. Pharus is immediately torn between the desire to tell the truth and his wish not to snitch on his classmate. This early scene becomes an embodiment for Pharus's central conflict throughout the play, which then unfolds into a series of scenes as Pharus navigates his senior year.

Not only does McCraney's dialogue create emotional resonance and move the story along at a good pace, but CHOIR BOY is also full of gorgeous spirituals. The choir music becomes an integral component of the storytelling, as the characters often sing when they're at emotional crossroads. It's a moving way of adding more layers to the piece and allowing the music to become a necessary element of the play. Jermaine Hill's music direction and Byron Easley's choreography also ensure that each number unfolds beautifully.

Gash has also cast one stellar ensemble for CHOIR BOY with immensely capable actors and singers. Hardwick's clarion vocals and emotional honesty make him a natural fit for Pharus. He brings Pharus's flamboyance to the forefront in many moments of the play but demonstrates that that's a natural part of the character's personality. He also finds just the right balance between Pharus's more outspoken and demanding moments as the choir lead, alongside moments of interiority and vulnerability. The latter are most evident in his exchanges with his close friend and roommate AJ (Sheldon D. Brown). Hardwick and Brown have a rapport that really embodies a deep friendship. In this way, CHOIR BOY also becomes a love letter to Pharus and AJ's platonic friendship (this, interestingly enough, has some thematic overlap with Rajiv Joseph's KING JAMES from earlier in Steppenwolf's season). Above all else, Pharus longs to be seen for just who he is-and AJ provides loving reassurance that he does, indeed, see him. Brown is a generous and moving performer, and the scenes he shares with Hardwick have a unique kind of intimacy.

While I've often seen Domally in roles of sweet, well-intentioned men, he showcases his versatility as Bobby, who isn't afraid to be a bully and a contrarian. Domally makes evident that Bobby is jealous of Pharus's role as choir lead; he leans into Bobby's moments of outright bigotry and questioning whether the school panders to Pharus unflinchingly, but he also makes clear that some of the hatred comes from a place of insecurity. Richard David is lovely as shy classmate David, who has some surprising moments of self-discovery and confidence as the play evolves. Samuel B. Jackson infuses a great deal of humor as Junior, who struggles with that classic high school choir issue - his voice is changing and cracking! Luckily, Jackson's actual performance is not at all shaky.

Hardwick, Domally, David, Brown, and Jackson have positively stunning harmonies in CHOIR BOY. When they bring their five voices together, the effect is absolutely chilling. Each of their characters goes on a distinct emotional journey, but these actors come together like a real choir when they sing. In particular, the "Rockin' Jerusalem" sequence is breathtaking and epitomizes music's power to convey emotion and mark moments of transition-for both the characters and the audience.

CHOIR BOY is a beautiful homage to adolescence, identity, aspiration, and the human longing to be seen and understood. Steppenwolf's production really hits home-and the stunning vocal arrangements and music are icing on the cake for what's already a deeply emotional, brilliant play.

CHOIR BOY plays in the Downstairs Theater at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 North Halsted, through July 24, 2022. Tickets are $20-$98.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow