Joyful noise: Steppenwolf's superb 'Choir Boy' a testament to the power of music

  • Tyler Hardwick, foreground, plays Pharus, the leader of his elite prep school's choir, and Gilbert Domally plays Bobby, a fellow choir member and rival, in Steppenwolf Theatre's "Choir Boy."

    Tyler Hardwick, foreground, plays Pharus, the leader of his elite prep school's choir, and Gilbert Domally plays Bobby, a fellow choir member and rival, in Steppenwolf Theatre's "Choir Boy." Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

 
 
Posted6/30/2022 6:00 AM

"Choir Boy" -- ★ ★ ★

There's a reason we sing. We sing when words fail us. We sing because music affords us joy during our best times and solace during our worst.

 

And there's a reason we sing in the shower (the absence of critics is only part of it). The reverb makes our voices seem richer. Our vocals bouncing off hard, ceramic surfaces sound more powerful, more resonant. The prep school choristers in Tarell Alvin McCraney's poignant, coming-of-age play-with-music "Choir Boy" understand this. For them, the showers are a de facto rehearsal room.

"The boys sing there and are made better by it," wrote McCraney via email. "They go there to release and wash away their cares."

Sheldon D. Brown, left, Richard David, Tyler Hardwick, Samuel B. Jackson and Gilbert Domally (background) play teenage choir members in Steppenwolf Theatre's "Choir Boy" by ensemble member Tarell Alvin McCraney.
Sheldon D. Brown, left, Richard David, Tyler Hardwick, Samuel B. Jackson and Gilbert Domally (background) play teenage choir members in Steppenwolf Theatre's "Choir Boy" by ensemble member Tarell Alvin McCraney. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Under Kent Gash, who helms Steppenwolf Theatre's superbly staged revival, the scene depicting the fictional Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys choir so engaged it was transcendent.

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Accompanied by a heavenly a cappella version of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," the scene is a kind of benediction for adolescents struggling with self-doubt, sexuality, loneliness and grief. On their own and far from home, they're vulnerable (a condition their nudity emphasizes). But in music, they find strength and comfort. In music, they achieve communion.

Gash said his design and staging of the shower scene evolved -- with the support of McCraney, whose lyricism, compassion and humor I have long admired -- from "Choir Boy" productions he directed in Washington, D.C., and California. Lucky are Steppenwolf's audiences who experience the apotheosis.

Attempting to quell the unrest in his prep school's choir, Headmaster Marrow (LaShawn Banks), left, enlists members Bobby (Gilbert Domally), right, and Junior (Samuel B. Jackson), center, in "Choir Boy," running through July 24 at Steppenwolf Theatre.
Attempting to quell the unrest in his prep school's choir, Headmaster Marrow (LaShawn Banks), left, enlists members Bobby (Gilbert Domally), right, and Junior (Samuel B. Jackson), center, in "Choir Boy," running through July 24 at Steppenwolf Theatre. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Unfolding on Arnel Sancianco's artfully designed set -- which Jason Lynch's shadowy lighting transforms from stately, marble-columned halls to communal shower -- the scene is deeply moving and made more so by five exceptional singing actors -- making their Steppenwolf debuts -- who play the members of Drew's celebrated choir.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Tyler Hardwick plays the titular choir boy Pharus, a junior we meet during the play's opening moments performing at senior commencement, a solo interrupted by whispered slurs from fellow chorister Bobby, a homophobic bully and the headmaster's nephew, played with wonderful complexity by Gilbert Domally.

An effeminate, outspoken young tenor who possesses extraordinary, grand ambition and an outsize ego, Pharus is poised to take over as choir leader his senior year, a position he's long coveted at a place where he is known as "the lil Sweet Boy they been trying to straighten out for years."

Steppenwolf Theatre presents ensemble member Tarell Alvin McCraney's humorous and heartfelt coming-of-age play with music "Choir Boy."
Steppenwolf Theatre presents ensemble member Tarell Alvin McCraney's humorous and heartfelt coming-of-age play with music "Choir Boy." - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

"Everybody didn't like me," he says, "but I had space to let me be."

Reluctant to lose what he has worked to achieve, Pharus adheres to the student code and refuses to snitch on Bobby to Headmaster Marrow (LaShawn Banks in a nicely comedic performance underscored by genuine concern). But as his first official act, he expels the "worrisome" Bobby, a fellow tenor and his main competition in the group.

Theirs aren't the only conflicts. Aspiring pastor David (Richard David) wrestles with an easily discerned secret. The likably dim Junior (Samuel B. Jackson) is bedeviled by his changing voice and low grades. The only conflict-free character is Pharus' roommate AJ (Sheldon D. Brown as kindness personified), a tolerant star athlete and a gay teen's ideal ally. Rounding out the ensemble is William Dick's Mr. Pendleton, a retired educator who returns to Drew to teach a creative thinking class, which commences with an inappropriate joke from a man who should know better.

Hardwick is exceptional expressing in his nuanced, complex performance the flamboyance, insecurity and determination of a young man who is no saint, though he possesses the voice of an angel. Bravo.

Mr. Pendleton (William Dick), center, leads choir members in a class on critical thinking in Steppenwolf Theatre's "Choir Boy," starring Tyler Hardwick, left, Sheldon D. Brown, Gilbert Domally, Samuel B. Jackson and Richard David.
Mr. Pendleton (William Dick), center, leads choir members in a class on critical thinking in Steppenwolf Theatre's "Choir Boy," starring Tyler Hardwick, left, Sheldon D. Brown, Gilbert Domally, Samuel B. Jackson and Richard David. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

That said, "Choir Boy" is an ensemble piece whose characters shine individually -- as in Jackson's glorious baritone on the hymn "Wondrous Love" -- and together. Under music director Jermaine Hill, the quintet delivers a haunting version of "Lord, I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray." Later, they nearly stop the show with the galvanizing "Rockin' in Jerusalem" featuring Byron Easley's explosive, razor-sharp, step choreography.

But, for me, "Choir Boy's" most stirring moment is the soulful, inspired sound of "motherless children" enduring the heartache and fear that accompanies growing up and -- for a moment at least -- finding a kind of peace.

• • •

Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650, steppenwolf.org

Showtimes: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, through July 24. Also 8 p.m. June 28, July 5, 12 and 19. No 8 p.m. show July 24

Running time: About 100 minutes, no intermission

Tickets: $20-$98

Parking: $15 in the Steppenwolf parking lot; limited street parking

Rating: For adults; contains nudity and mature themes

COVID-19 precautions: Proof of vaccination and masking required

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