The Scottsboro Boys

Music and Lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb
Book by David Thompson
Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman
Featuring John Cullum, Joshua Henry, Colman Domingo, Forrest McClendon
Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street
October 31, 2010 [opening] — December 12, 2010 [announced closing]

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
December 8, 2010

An eager.  full, and energized house at the Lyceum this evening.  It’s cold outside, it has been newly announced that this show is closing at the end of the week and some of us have rushed to catch the ephemeral event.  Big coats, sweaters, little seats, a smallish Broadway house with 19th century detailing, and persistent ushers with flashlights pestering patrons to turn off their cell phones before the show starts.  Now.  I’m loving this house staff.  They explain to the miscreants in the first few center rows (where I am seated and, for the moment at least, not one of the miscreants) that the show begins in absolute darkness and with action down the aisles.  I’m thinking to myself: behavior at every show should reflect this kind of respect for the artists on stage and the creators who have written the words and music and staged the moments.

And it begins.  All the men in the cast portray multiple characters in this story of mistreatment, mis-representation, glimpses of hope and visions of terror.  One woman, The Lady (Sharon Washington), waits for a bus as the show begins, and steps on that bus at the end, and throughout the show watches and responds to the events of history silently, graciously, with reserve.

I am familiar in general with the history of The Scottsboro Boys — nine men and boys riding the rails in 1931 Jim Crow Alabama to find work, have adventures, make a life during the Depression.  Along the way two white women falsely accuse the men of raping them, and arrests, trials, imprisonment, ultimately deaths ensue.  The Scottsboro Boys at the Lyceum Theatre is a musing on this troubled American story using the tools and conventions of a troubling American entertainment style — minstrelsy.  On an uncurtained stage stripped to bare boards, thrice boxed with metal frames increasingly tilted (putting us on notice from the first moment that this story will be told a bit askew), populated by chairs used as chairs, as steps, as jail cells — whatever the actors require they construct.  Our Interlocutor (John Cullum), following minstrel tradition, calls the show to order, decides which “story” will be told that evening, and invites the gentlemen to be seated.  Two conventional roles, comedians, Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon) engage initially with bad joke banter.  The Interlocutor decides upon the tale of the Scottsboro Boys as the evening’s entertainment, eliciting looks of surprise from the cast that has entered down the aisles of the theatre to the “Minstrel March”.  Character Haywood (Joshua Henry) asks: “This time can we tell it as it really happened? This time can we tell the truth?”  The convention is evoked and the convention is challenged all at once. In the audience, we are ready for almost anything to happen.

John Kander and Fred Ebb have crafted beautiful tunes that evoke the time, evoke the minstrel structure, evoke real musical theatre emotions, and evoke a myriad other Kander and Ebb shows and tunes while never feeling derivative.  During the evening, I frequently consider my experience with the original production of Chicago in the mid 1970s, set in the context of 1920s vaudeville, framing that 1920s randy raucous story.  Similarly and still distinctly, this story is framed with a historical musical style which couches events and allows for moments of theatre magic through staging, through melody, through emotion.  “Nothin'” by Haywood evokes memories of “Mr. Cellophane” in Chicago, which is in part an homage to Bert Williams, black performer who sometimes performed in blackface, who wrote and was famed for his rendition of his tune “Nobody” about social invisibility.  Haywood and the ensemble sing to the youngest boy Eugene (Jeremy Gumbs) of dreams of home that sets a bar for grand ballads (the tune in this show that passes my “Judy Garland set list test” for a great new ballad I predict will have a life beyond this book show) — “Go Back Home”.   This tune also provides a counterpoint to a syrupy sweet nostalgic piece “Southern Days” sung in blackface at the insistence of The Interlocutor much later in the show.  “That’s Not the Way We Do Things” performed by New York attorney Samuel Leibowitz (Forrest McClendon) evokes “We Both Reached For The Gun” and “Razzle Dazzle” from Chicago — i.e. a fancy attorney describes how to make the case in court.  And so it goes — suggestions and overlays and evocations and powerful unique moments of American musical theatre.

This play, this production, these performances, Susan Stroman‘s choreography and direction, the smart and layered book by David Thompson.  And the music.  All of a piece.  Smashing.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 9, 2010)

Below, from the Off Broadway run of this show at the Vineyard Theatre, Brandon Victor Dixon performs “Go Back Home”

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