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Beautiful singing boosts Marin Theatre’s ‘Choir Boy’

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Jelani Alladin plays the top singer in a high school chorus in Marin Theatre Co.’s local premiere of “Choir Boy.” COURTESY KEVIN BERNE

There’s a moment toward the end of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s drama “Choir Boy,” now in its Bay Area premiere at Marin Theatre Company, that represents what’s wrong — and what’s beautifully right — about the play.

In this moment, the conflicted headmaster of an elite prep school for African-American boys (played by Ken Robinson) kneels and belts out the gospel “I’ve Been in the Storm Too Long.”

The character is merely trying to figure out how to deal with some school problems, so the moment is unearned — but sung with enough heartfelt passion to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

The songs by the school’s fractious choir — “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” “Wade in the Water” and many more, plus some secular tunes as well — are the best part of the play. Under Kent Gash’s direction, the golden-voiced cast, whose singing is generally stronger than its acting, aces them all.

McCraney (whose “Head of Passes,” another play in which religious faith is a major component, recently was staged at Berkeley Rep) gives his characters lots to deal with.

Gay, flamboyant Pharus (Jelani Alladin), currently the proud lead singer in the school’s choir, is in close competition with another tenor, rebellious Bobby (Dimitri Woods), for that honor.

The headmaster is under pressure to raise funds for the school.

Nerdy David (Forest Van Dyke), who wants to be a pastor, is struggling with his own true nature.

Returning white teacher Mr. Pendleton (Charles Shaw Robinson), a former civil rights activist, wants to instill the graduating seniors with a sense of history and certain values.

The students, as seen in brief, one-sided phone calls, long for parental support that is not forthcoming: Pharus’ mother says she doesn’t need to come to graduation to know he’s graduated, (“I hope you’re proud of me,” he replies), David’s parents do nothing but bark orders, and so on.

As the central character, Pharus is a blend of cocky self-confidence and, in the way of all teenagers, self-doubt. Ambitious and super-smart, he both charms and antagonizes his classmates and the headmaster. In his darkest moments, he’s supported by his kind and wise jock roommate, AJ (Jaysen Wright).

It’s a bittersweet play that touches upon many — too-many – relevant social, historical, religious and coming-of-age issues. McCraney doesn’t have the time to explore any of them in depth. Thus the songs imply a gravitas that the script cannot adequately support.

Choir Boy
Where: Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley
When: Tuesdays-Sundays, closes June 28
Tickets: $20 to $58
Contact: (415) 388-5208, www.marintheatre.org

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