[This review is modified from my review of the original production that opened last season at the Vineyard Theatre.]
Every number of years, a musical comes along about which the question, "Does it work?" is impossible to address in bald, unequivocal terms because there's no bald, unequivocal answer. That it's a musical destined for—to use that depressing and misleading phrase—cult longevity rather than commercial success is certain, but whether that means near obscurity or near to the heart of musical fans all over is what nothing but time can determine. One expects, though, that The Scottsboro Boys will fall into the latter category, especially thanks to its bracingly effective production at the Lyceum Theatre, directed and choreographed by the redoubtable Susan Stroman, which is an evening of dazzlng, pointed, expert professionalism from start to finish.
The musical, with music by John Kander and lyrics by the late Fred Ebb, takes as its focus one of the outrageous tragedies of American jurisprudence: the convenient framing, in Scottsboro Alabama of 1931, of nine young black man on a falsified charge of rape. Just as the Kander-Ebb Chicago is presented as a vaudeville and their Cabaret as an encroaching Nazi nightmare dramatized within the environment of an underground German nightclub, The Scottsboro Boys utilizes a performance genre as its vehicle—that being the traveling, blackface minstrel show. There is, however, only one white face in the cast, that of the evening’s host, occasional narrator and untrustworthy guide, the Interlocutor (the ubiquitous yet still astonishingly reliable John Cullum, in the kind of Deep South role he can perform in his sleep, though happily doesn’t). The other cast members are black, only two of whom perform in (implied but never literal) whiteface as various members of the white, legal establishment (Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon). The others are the Boys, the principal personality being Haywood Patterson (Joshua Henry). On rare occasion, one or two will briefly assume another needed white character, most prominently the two women claiming to have been violated (Christian Dante White and James T. Lane). There is also a real woman, one, a silent observer until the very end (Sharon Washington). Who she turns out to be shall not be revealed here.
The factors that fight the musical’s mainstream popularity are these: While framing the story as a minstrel show makes for delicious irony, and turns the hoary old device into a terrific not-so-secret weapon, it also creates a distancing effect that's maintained for far too long. The Scottsboro Boys remain an unparticularized group of nine until the third number begins, and then only gradually do a lead personality and supporting characters start to emerge. Plus there's the fact that the group are victims: acted upon, never active, rarely in control, ever only RE-active, hence they can’t drive the story forward. What drives the story is a corrupt legal system, replete with stalling, politicking, deceptive dealing and outright bald chicanery, so the only thing that can really happen is for our passive heroes to hit one roadblock after another in their quest for justice, and that makes for slow moving narrative (even when there are jumps in time—though if my mermory isn't playing a trick borne of familiarity, there does seem to have been some internal tightening in the journey from the musical's off Broadway debut at Vineyard Theatre last season to Broadway this.) Further, as dramatized in the libretto by David Thompson, the boys are presented as broad-stroke essences. Not even their internal lives develop much, because, for all intents and purposes, who they were in the real world has been put into suspended animation unless or until they can leave prison.
If the show seems to suggest echoes of Parade, indeed the Brown-Uhry-Prince show comes to mind, but only as a free-association, not as a spectre. Parade never truly made its case as an agit-prop statement, but rather seemed like kneejerk liberal Deep South bashing, well beyond the historical era in which such an attitude might have been appropriate. But The Scottsboro Boys more successfully frames its tale as a historical incident and its agenda as a cautionary tale for any age or society—the South of the 50s serving as a metaphor for unjust regimes anywhere—in no small measure thanks to its aforementioned sense of irony, especially as expressed via catchy song and thrilling dance, which are prone to present nightmare giddily through the filter of a gay (in the old sense) funhouse mirror.
doesn’t work—I don’t know what to tell you. But the show does exactly
what it sets out to do, and by that standard, one must judge it a
success, on its own terms. Which makes it, for musical theatre lovers,
that must be seen. Any further assessment of worth must be in the eye
beholder. And that’s justice…
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