Choir Boy - Riverside Theatres Parramatta (NSW)
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Presented during Sydney WorldPride.
Reviewed by Justin Clarke
Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta Until Saturday 11th March 2023
*The following review was seen as a preview night before the official opening on the 18th February, 2023
- Handled with a balanced weight from its directing duo, Choir Boy is a must see this World Pride -
Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre has kicked off Sydney World Pride 2023 in style with not one, but two flavours of choice to celebrate diverse stories and pride. With the sensual Matador playing next door, tonight we ventured into the more toned down, but nonetheless captivating premiere production of the Broadway play Choir Boy.
Written by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, and directed by Dino Dimitriadis and Zindzi Okenyo, the show follows a group of young, black students at the spiritual all-boys Charles R. Drew Prep School. Dealing with issues of identity, classicism and sexuality, the central narrative revolves around lead choir boy Pharus (Darron Hayes) a doey-eyed, flamboyant and all too smart Drew student that shines with pride every moment he is on stage. Pharus doesn’t attempt to hide his true self, despite the racial and sexual slurs thrown at him by fellow choir boy Bobby (Zarif). After exacting his own revenge and utilising his power as lead choir boy on Bobby, kicking him out of the group, the new arrival of the retired, befuddled Mr. Pendleton (Tony Sheldon) puts into motion a possible path to unity.
McCraney’s bildungsroman story about human differences, inbuilt bias and bullying is written with a depth of storytelling through his characters who are themselves multifaceted. Their lives are all held together fragilely by the Gospel music they sing, despite their opinions on where their voices as young black men come from. The central characters, Pharus, Bobby, Junior (Abu Kebe), AJ (Quinton Rofail Rich) and David (Theo Williams) carry the weight of McCraney’s words. Through them we explore the layered themes with clarity, poignancy and heartbreak to create a production that shines.
Photo Credit Phil Erbacher
There are glimpses of depth in the other male characters of Mr. Pendleton and Headmaster Marrow (Robert Harrell), hinting that there are greater stories to be told. Sheldon’s performance particularly - showing the skill harnessed from his illustrious career - yearned to be explored further. After a heated exchange between Bobby and Pharus in which racial and homophobic slurs are thrown, Pendleton interjects that he’s “lost too many friends because of that word,” hooking us to want to know more, but it's never given. As well, swings Gareth Dutlow and Tawanda Muzenda are in each scene the choir features, but are never given a line or a name, utilised instead for their voices alone and leaving us with a loss as to where the lives of these boys fit into the group as a whole.
Speaking of voices, a rousing standing ovation should be given each night for this alone. All of the performers in the production vocalised such emotive depth and weight in every note sung, every lyric harmonised and every syllable uttered. Led by Musical Director Allen René Louis, the acapella and body-percussion songs soared throughout, exacting gasps, grunts of agreement and tears.
Hayes is a force to be reckoned with, harnessing a voice that is both powerful in belt and in range, reflecting Pharus, who is both powerfully confident and at times, too smart for his own good. His hubris is ultimately his downfall throughout the story, despite his pride that constantly breaks through the slurs and mud thrown at him.
Williams’ David stands tall and stoic until he sings with such bravado that reveals his torn nature. David is layered and at war with himself, fighting to control his desires and class within the confines of his spirituality.
The other members of Kebe, Zarif and Rich each bring their own depth of emotion, humour and truth to their characters, with Kebe revelling in the humour of his Junior and winning the crowd over again and again.
Do yourself a favour this Sydney World Pride, and buy yourself a ticket to Choir Boy.
Dimitriadis and Okenyo are a mighty power-duo to bring this story to life, their fingerprints are clear throughout as they extract McCraney’s words to shine a light on the queerness of the characters and the blackness of the characters. The hefty bouts of dialogue given to them, specifically Hayes, could have lost its audiences in the sheer weight of ideas. Instead the pair handle it with such fragility and enough captivation to make you pause afterwards and let the themes soak through. While the production took a while to find its feet, struggling to keep the pace in its near two-hour run time and fighting through some questionable accents, once the gears started shifting, the production took off and didn’t let you go until the final spotlight.
Do yourself a favour this Sydney World Pride, and buy yourself a ticket to Choir Boy. With layered characters, a depth of talent from both its lead, Darron Hayes, and Tony Sheldon, a brutality and tenderness from its directing duo, acutely directed musical direction and all-too relevant themes, it’s safe to say Riverside Theatres has come to play in 2023.
Choir Boy will be performing at Wollongong Town Hall from 22nd – 25th March.
Playwright Tarell Alvin-McCraney
Directors Dino Dimitriadis & Zindzi Okenyo
Producer Daniel Cottier
Musical Director Allen René Louis
Assistant Musical Director Zara Stanton
Set Design James Browne
Costume Design Rita Naidu
Lighting Design Karen Norris
Sound Design Brendon Boney
Choreographer Tarik Frimpong
Dialect Coach Angela Sullen
Intimacy Director Cessalee Stovall
Creative Futures Assistant Director Masego Pitso
Stage Manager Adrienne Patterson
Assistant Stage Manager Alice Cavanagh
Production Associate Hannah Crane, Paper Jam Productions
Company Manager Jen Jackson
Casting Director Rhys Velasquez, Evolution Casting
Starring Darron Hayes, Tony Sheldon, Robert Harrell, Zarif, Quinton Rofail Rich, Theo Williams, Gareth Dutlow, Abu Kebe, Tawanda Muzenda
Tickets are from $59 from 14-17 February
14th February – 11th March 2023
Venue: Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres – Corner of Church and Market Streets, Parramatta
Tickets: Members $65 | Non-members $63-$79 | Groups of 10+ $63 | Student/Teacher $32. Transaction
fee $4.95. Available from https://riversideparramatta.com.au/show/choir-boy/ or from the Box Office
(02) 8839 3399. For further information on the performances and tickets to all shows, visit: