If you think you know spirituals, you will be surprised to hear them in entirely new ways in "Choir Boy," Tarell Alvin McCraney's music-infused coming-of-age play, which had a stellar opening Friday at the Guthrie Theater.
Under director Peter Rothstein, with strong assists from music director Sanford Moore and choreographer Austene Van, a quintet of young men at the Charles Drew boarding school often begin these songs as we're accustomed to hearing them, then switch to Moore's updated arrangements with a hip-hop backbeat. These rugged old spirituals, from "Trust and Obey" to "I've Been in the Storm Too Long," sound like something you might hear at a concert by, say, Jay Z or Drake.
These performances are thrilling, and far from blasphemous. The production is as much an homage to spirituals as it is about a gay young man finding himself and his voice in the rigid world of a prep school choir. It shows that these songs are dynamic and adaptable sources of inspiration and strength, no matter what the situation.
That takeaway is one of the arguments made in the play by Pharus Jonathan Young (John-Michael Lyles), the bright lightning rod at the center of this 90-minute one-act. In the face of whatever social challenges people meet, these songs are enough, and they need not be shrouded in mythologies about their use as coded guides to escape whatever or whoever might hold them captive.
In Pharus' case, the social constrictions surround his sexuality in the macho proving ground of an all-male school. (Note that the play includes adult language and nudity.)
Indefatigable and full of life, Pharus has energy to spare. He also is flamboyantly gay, as is noted by both Principal Marrow (James Craven) and his heckling nephew, Robert "Bobby" Marrow III (Darrick Mosley). The play opens with Pharus singing at commencement, and being interrupted by homophobic taunts from Bobby. But Pharus may be able to get his revenge on Bobby, who also is a choir member, when he becomes leader of the singing group.
Other members include aspiring minister David Heard (Nathan Barlow), Bobby's friend Junior Davis (Kory LaQuess Pullam) and Pharus' roommate, A.J. (Ryan Colbert). The show also includes freethinker Mr. Pendleton (Robert Dorfman), a white teacher who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King and challenges the students to think outside of the box.
Rothstein's staging heightens the stakes within this layered story about confronting bigotry and finding allies (against homophobia now vs. racism then). McCraney's spare and poetic writing gets an equally taut treatment from Rothstein, whose transitions are studies in efficiency.
In fact, the action, which takes place on Michael Hoover's Modernist set, sometimes feels too tightly wound. "Choir Boy" rarely pauses to breathe, especially after its showstopping numbers. That bottles up the applause until the end, when the audience rightly leaped to its feet.
Kudos to Lyles, who is a fleet and winning phenom onstage. His Pharus is so quick, it's hard to see how anything can touch him. But that's the point. Pharus has learned to be fast to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Lyle's charisma and indefatigability make it impossible not to cheer heartily for Pharus as he makes his way in a world that would rather exclude him.
Pharus has a staunch, sensitive straight ally in A.J., a character that Colbert invests with warmth, tenderness and understanding. Mosley gives us a Bobby who tries to make up for his own ignorance by being a hectoring sourpuss. Barlow's David is a well-played, if confused, mess while Pullam's Junior begins to grow in understanding.
All of the performances are on point in this excellent production in the Dowling Studio, where, at the end of Friday's opening, outgoing Guthrie director Joe Dowling pronounced the show "extraordinary." Indeed, it is.