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Theater review: 'The Scottsboro Boys' at the Lyceum Theatre

October 31, 2010 |  5:00 pm

Scottsboro1 

Location is everything in real estate, and that goes for theatrical properties as well. Let me tell you a story that demonstrates the truth of this maxim, the tale of a boldly risk-taking off-Broadway musical that got its Broadway wish and ended up looking completely out of place.

Kander & Ebb—that’s the legendary theatrical duo of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb—were innovators in what has become known as “the concept musical,” a form they expanded and energized with their two greatest shows, "Cabaret" and “Chicago.” Well, their final collaboration, completed several years after the death of Ebb in 2004, has turned out to be no less pioneering. In fact “The Scottsboro Boys,” which opened Sunday at the Lyceum Theatre, dares to do things that, sadly, shouldn’t be tried these days on Broadway. 
 
This musical, which premiered in March at New York’s Vineyard Theatre and was subsequently developed in a pre-Broadway run at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, is about one of the sorriest chapters of racial injustice in 20th century American history: the infamous case of nine African American teens unfairly accused of a crime and held for years in a series of miscarriages of justice that were as protracted as they were unforgivable. But don’t expect the somber tones of “Caroline, or Change,” “Parade” or any of the other contemporary music-dramas that have tackled formidably serious subjects with furrowed brows. 

Scottsboro 2“The Scottsboro Boys” employs a version of minstrelsy—black performers turning both white and black figures from the pages of history into vaudevillian caricaturesas it retraces the tragic journey of its title characters.The approach, a mix of Brecht and burlesque, sardonically applies old-fashioned razzmatazz to the starkest of dramatic situations.  

Excuse me, but weren't the regional theaters and off-Broadway created for exactly this kind of unorthodox venture? The show deserves a longer life, but moving it uptown is akin to demanding that it walk the gangplank.

The Scottsboro Boys, as you may recall from social studies, were a group of young men, strangers for the most part, who were riding a boxcar headed for Memphis in 1931. They were looking for work at “the dawn of the Depression,” and were arrested in Scottsboro, Ala., on the ludicrous charge of raping two Southern white women who were also on the train. 

There’s not much ambiguity in the chronicle—the defendants were victims of the most noxious bigotry and their lives never recovered from their ordeal. A straightforward dramatization would inevitably be earnest and grim. Even when served up as a frenetic farce, it’s hard not to choke on the bitterness.

There’s no doubting the skillfulness of the musical's creative team, which includes book-writer David Thompson and the redoubtable director-choreographer Susan Stroman (“The Producers”). But this kind of stylistic gamble sets up formidable challenges even for the canniest of pros.

Audiences—especially those of a sensitive nature—are bound to feel squeamish about tapping their feet to the infectious ragtime beat as police brutality is depicted and the jokes about lynching pile up. The uneasiness is intentional, but that doesn't make it any easier to handle.
 
This isn’t being produced in an experimental venue, where ironic contradiction between form and content wouldn't seem so jarring. What's more, Kander & Ebb, for all their groundbreaking artistry, are musical theater insiders, not avant-garde rabble-rousers. Producing their swan song on Broadway brings prestige and Tony Award eligibility, but it also muddles the show’s reception. Theatergoers expecting Broadway sentimentality or documentary solemnity are in for some expensive cognitive dissonance.

Not surprisingly, when “The Scottsboro Boys” opened off-Broadway, it divided the critics. I have misgivings about the broad and relentlessly satiric treatment (even the heroic lawyer Samuel Leibowitz, who tirelessly fought for the release of the nine, is portrayed as a cartoon), but I remain impressed by the quality of the score, the fluidity of the production and the unflinching integrity of the undertaking.

Stroman’s staging tumbles with a clownish grace that is often mesmerizing. Although a few of the numbers are extraneous to the narrative build of this two-hour, intermission-less show, most have an impressive showbiz-flair. You may hate yourself for enjoying these incongruously up-tempo songs, but they’re not easy to dismiss.
 
The production design maintains the musical's tight aesthetic. Beowulf Boritt's sets and Ken Billington's lighting insinuate just enough flash into the attractive severity to keep us mindful that we're watching a stage performance within a stage performance.     

The distinguished veteran John Cullum, the lone white actor onstage, plays the Interlocutor, the ringleader of this theatrical adventure, as well as the Judge and the Governor of Alabama. And more impressive than his subtle showmanship is the way he’s able to effortlessly slip into antithetical moral attitudes.

The ensemble members aren't given too many opportunity to individualize the nine, although Joshua Henry lends poise and dignity to his portrayal of Haywood Patterson, who refuses to say he’s guilty in exchange for parole. The complexities of Patterson’s character and story are brushed over, but he becomes the central focus of our concern. When Henry erupts into the song “You Can’t Do Me,” the entire audience seems to be in solidarity with his righteous fury.

The humor is perhaps most pronounced in the scenes involving the villainous crew of racist whites (portrayed with an elastic loopiness by Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon). But the Punch and Judy mode has a way of conveying the systematic brutality without stopping us dead in our tracks at each violent flare-up.  

“The Scottsboro Boys” rises in pathos as the fate of the imprisoned men is revealed. Not everyone in the audience will be able to trust their teary emotion—is this another of the musical’s subversive traps?—but it’s one of the few times that the show seems to belong on Broadway.

--Charles McNulty, from New York

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

Photos: Top: James T. Lane, Derrick Cobey, Julius Thomas III, Joshua Henry (standing), Josh Breckenridge, Kendrick Jones, Rodney Hicks. Bottom: Joshua Henry. Credit: Paul Kolnik/Associated Press

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