Oh, the music . . .
Choir Boy opened at the Briggs Opera House. Approximately 100 Upper Valley folks had the honor of being the audience for the very first opening night of the inaugural play presented by JAG Productions in concert with ArtisTree. Choir Boy is not a musical, but is carried by the soulful a cappella singing of five characters who form the all-important choir at Charles R. Drew Prep, an elite boarding school for young African-American men.
Pharus's (Will T. Travis) ambition is to head the choir and to sing the lead at all major school events, a dream that is tugged this way and that until the play's concluding scene. He is, as the program notes, a young man of paradox--not just a dreamer but a schemer as well. Intensely loyal to and bound by the precept of honor at Drew, he won't officially rat out his fellow choir members who humiliate him on stage, but is not above using it in retribution and to gain some leverage with the school's headmaster. He's gay, and lonely, tolerated but not loved by his peers. His roommate AJ, played by Alex Grayson, is a beacon of kindness--watch in particular for the haircut scene--in a world that both cradles and stings.
It is indeed a coming of age story in a setting that provides a window to a part of the African-American community not often portrayed. Amid some heady themes such as honor, acceptance, and the loneliness of feeling oneself to be different, this is also a story of a group of young men who are nothing if not contemporary and typical. They are trying to take their studies seriously but are not above teenaged eye-rolling, particularly at the suggestions of their teacher Mr. Pendleton, played with wacky earnestness by Vermont-based actor Bill Carmichael. They are trying to uncover their life's path. In a artfully staged scene of telephone conversations, we learn that they miss their mothers.
Erick Pinnick plays the headmaster who tries, but is caught up in the administrative dross of academia and a subtly-played impatience with changing attitudes of the 21st century. He trips over his homophobia. Pendleton tries to clue him in about the nature of love.
The cast also includes Wesley Barnes as Junior, an extraordinary vocalist, and John Henry Carter as Bobby, Pharus's nemesis and the nephew of the headmaster. He has his own sorrows to hold.
Back to the music. Again, while not a musical, the music carries the show. We get to eavesdrop on the choir rehearsals and performances, and even some singing in the shower. Old spirituals with some new twists, the percussion of hands to chests, and a heart-filled rendition of Motherless Child.
The set design is impressive, changing from stage to headmaster office to classroom to ascetic twin-bedded dorm room. The shower scenes are cleverly done. Though we loved visiting our old seats from the Northern Stage era at D3 and 4, you might want to choose the center section. A line or two of dialogue was lost to those of us in the side seats.
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Susan B. Apel, author, ArtfulEdge