Monday, December 06, 2010

Guilty Pleasures - The Scottsboro Boys - Musical Review

The Scottsboro Boys - Lyceum Theatre - Broadway - New York, NY - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Book by David Thompson, Directed and Choreographed by Susan Stroman
Closing Dec. 12th 2010

The Scottsboro Boys is a gloriously entertaining new musical with zippy catchy songs and big smiles on the casts faces and they dance and skip around the stage, all to tell the tale of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenage boys who were accused of raping two white girls in 1931 Alabama.

And therein lies the perceived controversy and why the smart new musical The Scottsboro Boys, by Kander and Ebb (despite the death of one in the brilliant partnership), works so powerfully, by presenting a horrifying moment in history onto a platform usually known for entertainment, a device Kander and Ebb used so well in Cabaret and Chicago.

Of course, in this case, the entertainment device, that of the Minstrel show, is controversial in itself, since it is seen as a racist and demeaning form of theatrics that used the images of Blacks in a negative and condescending manner. By having the white John Collum lead the remaining all-Black cast perform in this mock Minstrel show-within-a-show, David Thompson and Kander & Ebb have created a layered satyrical and pointed look at the Scottsboro Boys case itself, where being Black or White mattered, and where portraying it in a reversal of roles (where the Black cast of the show plays both Black and White historical characters), underlines the hypocrisy in what happened in Alabama in the 1930's.

Susan Stroman (The Producers) directs and choreographs the show with such swift aplomb, with clever staging using only chairs, planks and tambourines, and a seemingly genial John Collum (Urinetown) doing hosting duties as the Interlocutor, while the always fantastic (and spastic) Colman Domingo (Passing Strange, above left), and a terrifically game Forest McClendon(above right), pair up as regular Minstrel characters Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo (respectively) (whose characters play a rotating array of characters in the show-within-the-show).

Sharon Washington, the sole woman in the cast, mostly sits by as an audience member, but without giving away too much, is an integral part of the show.

Then there are the 9 actors who portray the Scottsboro Boys, and while there are some certain standouts (especially due to some double duties in multiple character roles), the group of 9 is uniformly fantastic, with terrific voices and solid performances.

Lead by the strapping Joshua Henry (American Idiot), whose Haywood Patterson becomes the default leader in the group of confused and accused boys, the cast takes on Kander & Ebbs' wonderfully caustic lyrics and yet hummable score infuses the in-balance in justice of the 9 boys' situation.

James T. Lane (A Chorus Line) and Christian Dante White sneak away from the pack and turn in performances as Ruby Bates and Victoria Price (respectively), the white girls who falsely accuse the 9 black men of rape, and Lane and White's performances are simply splendid. Christian Dante White's Victoria Price is particularly pointed in its cartoonish rendition of delusion and stubborn selfishness as Ruby Bates recants her accusations, while Price holds still. In a production with equally stunning performances, White's is still by far a standout.

There's been debate about whether the use of the Minstrel show framing device is morally appropriate, and particularly the use of black face in a musical number, but after seeing the whole show, I would say Thompson and Kander & Ebb have done a fine and responsible job with the controversial material, and Stroman and the cast have delicately approached the material and subject matter in way that treats the issues seriously, despite the surface entertainment values the show has.

Finally, unfortunately, the Broadway show is closing very soon and failed to secure an audience on Broadway fast enough to keep the show going. To be honest, I never thought it would do well financially, especially during the current economic times. It's too bad because the music and showmanship of the The Scottsboro Boys is something I think mainstream audiences would love if they were willing to give the show a chance, and that would be mean a longer length of time to build up the word of mouth, but alas, the Broadway production will shutter too soon for that to happen.

It will live on regionally and grow in popularity as people discover this gem of a musical, but if you have a chance to see it on Broadway this week, run to it.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

1 comment:

Esther said...

I thought Joshua Henry was terrific, especially in the song "Go Back Home." That just took my breath away.

The minstrel format was effective in illuminating the racism and anti-Semitism of the era. And it's used mainly to lampoon the white characters.

I think what the book writer David Thompson does so well is make a distinction between how the nine are portrayed when they're "performing" and when they're by themselves, in the jail. He treats them with respect and we hear about their hopes and fears.

I thought The Scottsboro Boys was very compelling and entertaining in the best sense of the word. It reminded me of seeing Cabaret for the first time, at the movies. That was when I realized a musical could take on a serious subject.

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