Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires
Pharus (Israel Erron Ford) attends Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys and he's one of a group of adolescents in the choir. The show begins as the ensemble performs a religious hymn while husky Bobby (Anthony Holiday) verbally insults Pharus. Pharus pauses and is later berated by Headmaster Marrow (Allen Gilmore) for not, as he was instructed, continuing to sing throughout. The headmaster happens to be Bobby's uncle. Marrow is apoplectic at this time. His reaction seems a bit much for the offense. Ford possesses a nice, clear voice but actor Aaron James McKenzie (cast as David) is even truer and sweeter when he sings solo. It's not a stretch to imagine the mellifluent McKenzie as a lead in a Broadway musical.
The play received its world premiere in London in September, 2012, and was presented at various theaters in the United States during the next few years. Playwright McCraney graduated from Yale's Geffen School of Drama and currently co-chairs the playwriting program there (he also co-authored, and was awarded an Oscar for, the movie Moonlight). Director Christopher D. Betts will receive his M.F.A. from the Geffen School next month. Leading man Israel Erron Ford did his M.F.A. work at the Geffen School as well.
Ford's Pharus is at his best singing spirituals such as "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." Pharus does not seek to conceal his sexuality even as the school is a conservative one. If anything, he is audacious. The individually strong voices of the cast shine notably through harmonies several times during the performance, which runs just under two hours without intermission.
Teacher and faculty advisor Mr. Pendleton (Walton Wilson) is a veteran of civil rights marches and still concerned about social justice. He is unable to calm tensions in his room and is, instead, loud and almost comically ineffective. Wilson plays the character with exaggeration, creating a caricature. We have a portrait of a curmudgeon who is partly doddering and also ill-equipped to control a situation. The depiction portrays a man out of touch, frustrated and pretty much dismayed. Gilmore's headmaster is also overly excitable and lacking skills to mediate and calm tension between students. Both of these talented actors are seasoned and each has lengthy credits to his name; whether due to the script, the direction, actor choice, or some combination, they are over the top here. Betts's facilitation and Amy Hall Garner's choreography seem specific, and the actors move gracefully and with precision.
Anna Grigo's settings reveal artwork that is quite Christian, amid floor-to-ceiling wood panels. Beds slide in, from time to time, as Pharus and his roommate Anthony (Malik James) engage in dialogue which is revealing and personal. The scenic design as well as Riva Fairhall's precise lighting assist in providing atmosphere and tone. A few compelling scenes at showers are both clever and imaginatively drawn. Allen René Louis, the music director and vocal arranger, is highly skilled; Choir Boy is exemplary when the actors lift their voices. Additionally, Intimacy director Kelsey Rainwater has done well in coaching students amidst personal exchanges.
The script's thematic points regarding race and homosexuality through Pharus's predicament are strong ones but conspicuously apparent. Multiple conflicts are most evident. This is a finely tuned production, but here's a wish that it afforded the observer greater opportunity for discovery.
Choir Boy runs through April 23, 2022, at Yale Rep's University Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven CT. For tickets and information, call 203-432-1234 or visit yalerep.org.