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BWW Review: CHOIR BOY at Yale Repertory Theatre

This touching production runs through April 23rd

BWW Review: CHOIR BOY at Yale Repertory Theatre

BWW Review: CHOIR BOY at Yale Repertory Theatre

By Brooks Appelbaum-April 10, 2022

Tarell Alvin McCraney's CHOIR BOY, playing at Yale Repertory Theatre through April 23, is directed by the prodigiously talented Christopher D. Betts; Betts has created a terrific production with outstanding acting, singing, and scenic, lighting, and costume design. The play itself has some predictable elements, but for the most part Betts' interpretation makes for a thought-provoking and moving experience.

Set in the fictional Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys, an all-Black private and selective high school, CHOIR BOY centers on a tightly knit group of young men who all sing in the prestigious choir. Four of the young men make up the "ensemble" and we don't learn their stories; five others each have more or less fully fleshed-out characters and backgrounds.

Of these five, senior Pharus Jonathan Young (a touching Israel Erron Ford) sets the plot in motion and serves as the titular "choir boy": Pharus is determined to be himself, which means, in part, refusing to hide his queer spirit, his "swish," as he calls it, despite teasing, bullying, and sympathetic but stern advice from Headmaster Marrow (Allen Gilmore, in a warm and aptly complex performance).

In addition to investigating Pharus' difficulties and bravery, CHOIR BOY also reminds us of the deeply unfair practices of this kind of prep school. David Heard, poignantly played by Aaron James McKenzie, attends Drew on a scholarship (as does Pharus), and David is desperate to keep his place, being the first person in his family to go to high school. By contrast, Robert "Bobby" Marrow, III (Anthony Holiday) is a legacy student: the nephew of Headmaster Marrow. That Bobby is also Pharus' main bully further emphasizes the unjust gatekeeping of many such institutions.

Anthony Justin ("A.J.") James, played by Malik James in one of the cast's most winning performances, demonstrates the ideal values of a "Drew Man" in action: A.J. is not only confident and centered, but he is kind to all and, especially, to his roommate Pharus.

While the plot is somewhat unsurprising, CHOIR BOY's music adds an original element to the events. The music is made up of classic spirituals sung a cappella, and the gorgeous harmonies work in ironic counterpoint to the young men's conflicts. Gilbert Domally, Denzel DeAngelo Fields, Darian Peer, and Wildlin Pierrevil make up the Ensemble, and all four not only have beautiful voices but they--and all the other members of the choir--execute Amy Hall Garner's choreography with energy and joy.

Anna Grigo's set is stunning in every incarnation. Capitalizing on the cathedral-like space of the theatre itself, Grigo frames the stage with dark wooden panels, creating a hallowed atmosphere heightened by floor-to-ceiling banners painted to look like stained glass. These slide in to signal the headmaster's office. Each set change occurs within seconds and is beautiful to watch as we move from Pharus' and AJ's dorm room to the locker room and shower, and--crucially--to the choir's rehearsal hall.

Music Director Allen René Louis, who also provides the vocal arrangements, amplifies the emotions in the choral scenes, and the sound designer, Daniela Hart, supports his work perfectly. Stephen Marks' costumes bring out each characters' salient qualities, and Riva Fairhall's lighting design is effectively unobtrusive: we believe we are in a realistic world until something or someone--usually Pharus--requires spot lit emphasis.

CHOIR BOY may not evoke entirely new conversations, but certainly the beauty of the singing, the splendid production values, and the expert acting add up to a memorable theatre experience.

CHOIR BOY runs through April 23rd at the University Theatre, 222 York Street. Tickets are $10 and $25 (all previews), $10 and $45 (weeknights), and $10 and $65 (weekends and matinees). Student tickets are $10 for all performances. Tickets are available online at yalerep.org, by calling (203) 432-1234, and in person at the Yale Rep Box Office (1120 Chapel Street).

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus



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