The Magic of Harmony

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Is there anything more magical than harmony?

As beautiful as the lone voice can be when you suddenly add and blend a second, a third, an entire world opens up. Suddenly, the sum is far greater than its parts. Harmony's a form of theatrical alchemy; a proof for the power of ensemble.

As you could guess from the title, "Choir Boy", Tarell Alvin McCraney's new play at the Geffen Playhouse, is all about harmony . . . and discord.

The choir of the title is the Charles R Drew Prep School for Boys' choir and they're a big deal. You see, Drew is an African-American boarding school somewhere far enough south that that's historically an issue. The choir has always been a big deal at Drew. It cuts across the whole school: the athletes, the nerds, the cool kids. If you can sing you want to be in the choir . . . and heading up that choir is quite an honor.

This year the honor falls on Pharus Young's shoulders. Pharus lives for the choir. It's the one place he really fits in: he's got a musical gift. Headmaster Marrow's got high hopes and he’s counting on Pharis, after all the choir is a big fundraiser. The only problem, well Pharus is gay and . . . he also just threw the headmaster's nephew out of the choir.

That's the setup but it doesn't begin to speak to the impact.

The play is filled with singing - and yet happily, not exactly a musical. The cast sing the choir's spirituals a cappella and they're remarkable. The songs alone are worth the trip but Mr. McCraney's gift is for weaving these songs into his own distinct voice. "Choir Boy" is a remarkably well constructed narrative that manages to be a play about race and class and privilege and homophobia without getting caught being an 'issue' play.

Pharus' journey, as a young gay man, is the one we track but he's as much a catalyst as he is a protagonist. Mr. McCraney allows Pharus to reveal the complexity of each of the characters knowing that like in a choir, the single voice is only one part of the harmony.

That's sophisticated playwrighting and it’s whats won Mr. McCraney such high praise and accolades for a young playwright. This is a play to see and a playwright to watch.

Three quick thoughts:

First, lucky LA theatergoers already know Mr. McCraney work from two lauded productions at the Fountain Theater: "The Brothers Size" & "In the Red and Brown Water". Here's a wonderful example of how LA's theater ecosystem, large and small, could work together - connecting a broader audience from across the city to a playwright's work.

Second, casting. It's a bit of a mysterious art and when we say 'great casting' we're often just saying the acting was good. If you want to see really great casting - see "Choir Boy."

Finally, the Geffen is quietly, consistently finding a powerful voice. Long known more for its stunt casting than its artistic vision, The Geffen's plays are starting to speak to one another - and that's exciting.

"Choir Boy" plays at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through October 26th.

For info on the show and to join the conversation: check out

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Banner Image Credit: Michael Lamont

Running Time: One hour 40 minutes without an intermission.