“It’ll move your soul a little,” said actor Andrew Broderick of Choir Boy when I interviewed him for the Toronto Star.
And he’s not wrong. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play-with-music bursts with spirit, 100 or so minutes of close harmonies and even closer encounters with growing up. Set in a Black, all-boys high school, Choir Boy investigates complex hierarchies of race, sexuality, and class, offering its audience brief looks into the lived experience of the Drew Prep School community. There’s a principal working at the mercy of an unforgiving school board; a white teacher ill-equipped to unpack the traumas of his floundering students; and a queer high school junior gunning for a prestigious end-of-year solo.
It’s that last point of view, Pharus’, we follow most closely as the play blossoms. Pharus, played masterfully (and sung perfectly) by Broderick, is Choir Boy’s beating heart, a gay young man in an ecosystem unable to tolerate difference. Drew is an academy of conformity, from its prim uniforms to its relentless adherence to tradition — those who break the mold risk losing their spots in Drew’s caste system. McCraney’s development of Pharus is meticulous and smart, and Broderick teases out the bones of his character with grace and maturity.
Choir Boy perhaps falters when McCraney allows our focus to divert from Pharus to the people around him — they’re often underwritten. But what makes the Canadian Stage/Arts Club Theatre production remarkable is that these characters often shine beyond the blueprints they’re provided by the text. This ensemble is perfectly cast, from a sweet Savion Roach as Pharus’ roommate AJ, to Clarence ‘CJ’ Jura’s charming Junior, to David Andrew Reid’s commendable performance as the tortured David, to Kwaku Okyere’s mesmerizing take on antagonist Bobby. Director Mike Payette has massaged depth from a text that at times feels predictable and melodramatic — and his rigorous dramaturgy often shines through the architecture of the play. The production is neither hyper-American, as might be expected, nor placeless — Payette’s production is ambiguously placed, and that choice is a strong one in this context.
This production is playing at the cavernous Bluma Appel Theatre — a pretty venue, yes — but for much of the play, it feels too big. Choir Boy begs for intimacy, for spatial proximity to fill the gaps created by McCraney’s script. And we just don’t get that here. So while the play sometimes soars, filling the Bluma Appel’s corners with music and wit, I often wished it didn’t have to work so hard to be felt. In truth, I missed the cozier 26 Berkeley Street space.
Venue aside, set designer Rachel Forbes has outdone herself with a luxe two-story set and a working shower system — for those keeping score, that’s now three recent productions which have featured real water onstage — and her costumes aren’t bad, either, suggesting school uniforms while still allowing some level of individuality in the form of cuffed pants and the occasional sweater. Sophie Tang’s lights, too, work well with Payette’s direction, isolating characters as needed when they’re belting out solos.
And what solos they are. Perhaps the highlight of Choir Boy is its music, arranged artfully by Floydd Ricketts. Though Choir Boy’s choir has only five voices, Ricketts’ arrangements are smart and robust; each musical line is crystal clear, and on opening night there were no sour notes or apparent uncertainties. Barbershop-style harmonies ain’t easy — one must be a supremely competent musician to hold a melodic line so close to its neighbour — and this cast under Ricketts’ and Dawn Pemberton’s musical direction has executed them brilliantly.
So, Choir Boy. Yes indeed, it’ll move your soul a little — it’s got heart, it’s got talent, it’s got joy — but in a more intimate space, with a more fleshed-out script, it could have the capacity to move your soul a whole lot.
Choir Boy runs November 8–19, 2023 at the Bluma Appel Theatre.