In his blue blazer, khakis, striped tie and penny loafers, Pharus Jonathan Young would ordinarily fade into the classrooms of the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys.
Receding’s not his style. A precocious intellect, seraphic voice, already outsize ego and the unembarrassedly effeminate mannerisms announcing that he’s gay mark the title character in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s gently disturbing coming-of-age tale at the Manhattan Theatre Club. No wallflower he.
With an unnerving mix of poignancy and shamelessness, Pharus -- played with consummate sympathy by Jeremy Pope --lifts “Choir Boy” above a run-of-the-mill feel-good lesson in tolerance. This kid is above all a born provocateur.
The suggestion that someone else might lead the school’s famed vocal ensemble, for example, puts him in a derisive mood. He’s the best, and he knows it. When a guest teacher (played by Austin Pendleton with his usual irresistibly shlumpy appeal) challenges the young men to think, Pharus offers a treatise against the preferred narrative of Negro spirituals as coded guides to freedom that infuriates his fellow students.
He tends to exasperate the headmaster (Chuck Cooper, radiating empathy), not to mention his loyal roommate (the fine Grantham Coleman). Pharus’s greatest antagonist is the headmaster’s nephew (Wallace Smith), taunter and bully.
McCraney’s “The Brother/Sister Plays” and “In the Red and Brown Water” have already distinguished him as a voice that, like Pharus’s, demands to be heard. Under Trip Cullman’s sleek direction, economically designed by David Zinn (set and costumes) and Peter Kaczorowski (lights), “Choir Boy” has the elegiac ring of autobiography.
And when these boys harmonize (the superb musical direction and arrangements are by Jason Michael Webb), “Choir Boy” rises, as the poem goes, “on wings of song.”
Through July 21 at City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th St. Information: +1-212-581-1212; http://www.nycitycenter.org. Rating: ***1/2
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include New York Weekend and Peter Rainer on movies.