Michael Shaw, Dezart Performs’ artistic director, has proven once again that he really knows his stuff: I cannot imagine a better way to kick off the theater’s 15th season than with Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Tony Award-nominated drama (with music), Choir Boy.
McCraney won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Moonlight, a film about a young black boy coming to grips with his attraction to men. Another coming-of-age story, Choir Boy follows a group of young Black students as they struggle to find themselves at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys.
In the opening scene, the flamboyantly gay Pharus (Dennis Renard) is leading the choir in song at the senior commencement ceremony. But fellow student Bobby Marrow (David Alan Madrick)—nephew of the headmaster (Andre G. Brown)—interrupts Pharus’ beautiful rendition of the school anthem “Trust and Obey” with homophobic insults.
Later, Headmaster Marrow reprimands Pharus for his brief distraction, and demands to know who caused it—but Pharus refuses to name names, terrified of being labeled a snitch. Nevertheless, when Bobby and his sidekick, Junior (Nate Summers), return from summer break, they are punished for the deed by being assigned trash pickup around the quad. As choir leader, Pharus gets his revenge by kicking Bobby out of the group for his arrogant attitude.
Fellow classmate David (Michael Swain-Smith) is a scholarship student who longs to become a pastor. He’s determined to keep his grades up and avoid getting involved in any school scandals. Also in the mix is Pharus’ roommate, AJ (Maurice Alpharicio), a jock with a sweet, compassionate streak.
Rounding out the cast is Nicholas Hormann as Mr. Pendleton, a white former history professor who is brought in by the headmaster to teach a class on creative thinking.
Michael Shaw and director Michael Matthews have assembled an amazing cast. The acting here is flawless—there is not a single false moment in this entire production.
Renard is perfection as the conflicted Pharus. He desperately wants to prove himself as “a Drew man,” but that requires that he deny certain parts of himself, especially his sexuality. Madrick is superb as the cocky, bullying Bobby. Underneath his bluster, there seems to be some uncertainty and sadness, which comes to the surface when anyone mentions his late mother.
As the bookish David, Swain-Smith is terrific. He wants to fit in and be one of the guys, but he can’t allow himself to be diverted from his godly calling. Summers gives an endearing performance as Junior; Bobby’s affable pal, he just goes with the flow.
Alpharicio is excellent as AJ. Well-built and athletic, he has some surprisingly tender moments with Pharus. He exhibits more tolerance and understanding of his effeminate roommate than one would expect from a stereotypical jock. As Headmaster Marrow, Brown is properly magisterial, but he has a sense of humor and is also willing to bend the rules on occasion. Hormann does a nice job as the rumpled, erudite Mr. Pendleton.
A production like this requires a skilled director, and Matthews does not disappoint. He guides his cast effortlessly through the twists and turns of the plot.
Jimmy Cuomo’s set deserves special mention. The play takes place both on the stage and in the round, which lets the audience feel connected to the action. It creates a lovely sense of intimacy. Kudos also to Phil Murphy (lighting design) and Clark Duggar (sound).
But perhaps the most impressive thing about Choir Boy is the music. When the students at Charles R. Drew Prep School raise their voices together in song, as they do often, it is heavenly. All of these actors are blessed with amazing vocal pipes. Their a cappella harmonies are exquisite. The ensemble’s version of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” will give you goosebumps. Congrats to musical director Ignoisco Miles, and to Joyce Guy for the equally splendid choreography.
This is an adult production—there is some nudity and brief homosexual intimacy, tastefully done. It covers serious issues—homophobia, racism, bullying, nepotism, loyalty and adolescent angst—that continue to divide us. At one point, Pharus demands that everyone take sides during a heated exchange over possible hidden meanings in Negro spirituals. We find ourselves nodding in agreement when AJ asks, “Why does there always have to be a side?”
Dezart’s production of Choir Boy is funny, poignant, thought-provoking and ethereal, with musical numbers that will blow you away. Do not miss this one.
Dezart Performs’ production of Choir Boy is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 6, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $39 to $45, and the show runs 100 minutes with no intermission. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.