Produced by Canadian Stage and Arts Club Theatre - Vancouver
The hit Broadway and London play, ‘Choir Boy’ opened to a full house on November 11 at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto. Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Mike Payette, this coming-of-age tale is demanding and forceful. The engine of this play comes from the powerful gospel songs and the vocal talents of a young cast.
The private Drew School for boys has been around for decades, educating young black men for remarkable careers. Famous for an enduring and popular choir, the story revolves around Pharus Young (giftedly acted by Andrew Broderick), a talented singer who is proud of his leadership role until he is challenged by younger students and his sexual awakening. Challenging the norms and traditions of a well-rooted institution brings heartbreak and fear to all concerned. Headmaster Marrow is conflicted as difficult scenarios challenge his leadership. Will the school survive the need for the inclusion of all students including gay black men?
As mentioned, the strength of the play comes from the distinctive and potent gospel music. The only instrument heard all evening was attached to a human diaphragm – the acapella work was signature. An opening number, lead by the brilliant voice of David Andrew Reid pinned the audience to their seats. Along with Mr. Broderick, the main choir was also made up of the talents of Clarence ‘CJ’ Jura, Kwaku Okyere and Savion Roach. Bios reveal the global reach for talent – from Toronto to Haiti to Ghana to Jamaica. Soulful gospel music comes from and relates to all corners of our world.
Another highlight is a robust visual delivered in part by set designer Rachel Forbes and lighting designer Sophie Tang. A full-length shower room moves eerily forward on stage with the barely visible cast showering under pumped in water – all this while singing the moving ‘Motherless Child.’ Full throttle vulnerability is clearly on display.
A dynamic performance comes from Scott Bellis, playing Mr. Pendleton, a former white Drew teacher who has been asked to come out of retirement. He jars us with what appears to be his inappropriate insensitivity towards the black community. But his early clownish references belie his sensitivity to the needs of these young black men. Like many Shakespearean fools, Mr. Pendleton is ironically full of wisdom and passion – revealed most strongly in his fiery speech about how no one should use the ‘N-word.
Daren A. Herbert delivers a dynamic performance as the headmaster trying to orchestrate the whirlwind of good and bad days on his watch. His acapella work stands up well beside the magical vocals of his students.
Ms. Forbes’ set is lavish – a dramatic full-length stained glass window centres a two-story library suggestive of the august school's religious and academic elements.
A final commencement scene is both soulful and sad. The choir, slightly broken, moves ahead – the mores of an institution have been contested and confronted. Through the swells of radiant harmony, we know that change must come - even with the collateral damage.
Running Time: 110 minutes
‘Choir Boy’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Produced by Canadian Stage and Arts Club Theatre – Vancouver
Performers – Scott Bellis, Andrew Broderick, Daren A. Herbert, Clarence CJ Jura, Kwaku Okyere, David Andrew Reid, Savion Roach
Director – Mike Payette
Musical directors – Floyd Ricketts, Dawn Pemberton
Set and costume designer – Rachel Forbes
Sound designer – Kate DeLorme
Lighting designer – Sophie Tang
The production runs through November 19, 2022 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front Street East, Toronto.
Tickets at canadianstage.ca or call (416) 366-1656.