Thursday, June 25, 2015

Choir Boy at the Guthrie

The Guthrie Dowling Studio season began in September with a Pillsbury House Theater/Mount Curve Company co-production of Tarell Alvin McCraney's Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet, the final installment in his Brother/Sister Plays trilogy. We enjoyed that production, and anxiously awaited the Guthrie's production of McCraney's new play, Choir Boy.

McCraney's script takes us into the fictional Charles R. Drew Preparatory School, a historically black boarding school with an acclaimed choir that helps to support the institution. The student leader of the choir is Pharus (John-Michael Lyles), whose homosexuality is tolerated grudgingly by Headmaster Marrow (the always-terrific James Craven). Through the school year, Pharus tries to drag the choir (Nathan Barlow, Ryan Colbert, Darrick Mosley, and Kory LaQuess Pullam) into shape while dealing with antagonistic classmates and more complicated relationships. 

I knew the play included music, having seen this wonderful clip of the New York cast:

James Craven (Headmaster Marrow) and John-Michael Lyles (Pharus).
Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp
But I was surprised at the amount of music, and the way it was woven through the story and the staging, frequently happening during the seamless scene changes.

The vocal arrangements by Sanford Moore are wonderful, and the actors' beautiful voices ring out through the theater without accompaniment, beyond the rhythms stomped on the stage, pounded on chairs, and beat-boxed. Austene Van is credited as movement consultant, but the beautifully coordinated moves of the choir looked a whole lot like dance to me.

The cast are all just wonderful, including Robert Dorfman as a past headmaster who comes back to teach the feuding choir some lessons in life as well as literature. The action plays out on Michael Hoover's set, which puts us in the classroom, the headmaster's office, the shower room, a dorm room, and other locations on campus with minimal shifting of furniture and evocative lighting by Ryan Connealy.

Peter Rothstein's staging keeps the 90-minute one-act moving smoothly, but his best work is with the dialogue. McCraney's script is very musical, with cadence and rhythm and poetry, which in this production sounds both like everyday speech and like great oratory. I enjoyed the language so much that I picked up a copy of the script in the gift shop and was a bit surprised to find the formatting rather like poetry, suggesting the rhythm of the speeches right on the page. But delivering those words in such an elegant and yet earthy way cannot be easy, though Rothstein and his cast make it seem effortless.

In short (too late!), this is a terrific production of a moving, funny, and above all, musical play, and I'm so glad I got to see it! See it. You'll be entertained, enlightened, and very glad you got to experience Choir Boy.
John-Michael Lyles (Pharus), Ryan Colbert (A.J.), Nathan Barlow (David), Darrick
Mosley (Bobby), and Kory LaQuess Pullam (Junior). Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.