‘Scottsboro Boys’ cakewalk into townEntertainment Feature Thursday, May 24th, 2012
The opening measures of Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys captivates with the simultaneous presence of the tragedy’s 1930s vaudeville act, 1950s finely ironed resistance and, most profoundly, our submerged present day fickle tolerance of black and brown.
Sound like heady stuff? It’s not. Under director Susan Stroman’s incandescent direction and period-infused choreography replicated by Jeff Whiting, Scottsboro Boys (essentially the Broadway production) is an express train toward justice. Kander and Ebb’s score stands tall beside their unforgettable Cabaret and Chicago. The catch is the nine young African American’s locomotive hasn’t a broken moral compass.
A dazzling reversed Minstrel Show is the framing device for the evening’s real-life tale dynamically staged with the best influences from performance art’s golden age. The style’s visual storytelling swiftly moves the musical action forward.
We see the boy’s Depression-era hopeful pursuit of happiness as they ride the rails in “Commencing in Chattanooga” that derails in Alabama with two prostitute’s false accusations of rape.
David Thompson’s riveting book and the toe-tapping songs are chock-full with wry humor. The numbers include: “Southern Days” which tacks a scowl on white privilege and black subservience; “Electric Chair” sizzles in tap dance; “Financial Advice” is an exuberant song about the benefits of “Jew money.”
A forgone conclusion, the kangaroo court swiftly convicts the nine innocents to death. Their case became a cause célèbre. The Supreme Court ruled that they had been denied due process. Six years and eight trials later, even after one of the women subsequently recanted her original testimony, guilty verdicts continued.
Scottsboro Boys is an ensemble show. Just the same, the production has break-out performances. Clifton Duncan’s illiterate Haywood Patterson turns in a melancholic ballad “Go Back Home” that galvanizes the house. In “Never Too Late” James T. Lane gender bends Ruby Bates’ recanted testimony in luxurious farce. Little Nile Bullock wears-out his tap shoes as Eugene Williams, too young to know what the word rape means.
The recurring oppressors are played by two ever-changing antagonists, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, Jared Joseph and JC Montgomery respectively, metamorphose unceasingly through the evening. The sole white performer, Ron Holgate as The Interlocutor, appeared to be on cruise-control.
Scottsboro’s design is deceptively simple and achieves optimal theatrical utility with Stroman’s staging. Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design of tilted portholes, collection of white chairs and cyclorama deliver all the needed nuance and visual punch with Ken Billington’s painterly lighting design. Toni-Leslie James’s costume design is period-appropriate and adds bursts of color and code. Hats off to music director Eric Ebbenga and the eight-piece band.
Kander and Ebb’s last collaboration is the most audacious, challenging and confrontative theater work to hit town since Culture Clash’s 1998’s satirical indictment Border Town, based on sociological observations of San Diego. Scottsboro Boys, to date, is an implausible Globe presentation. Booking the show was former CEO Lou Spisto’s only daring artistic choice. There were a few walk-outs at the performance I attended where silent shock hung in the air during most of the show. Applause was judicial till the last third of the evening, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Questioning one’s response to the stage offerings is more transformational than Pavlovian standing ovations.
This new musical’s hip flip on theatrical styles is challenging and of special interest to the LGBT audience. What might be an equivalent take on the LGBT human rights experience? Imagine a set of characters in the person’s of Harvey Milk, Ryan White, Matthew Shepard, Brandon Teena (transsexual female-to-male of Boy’s Don’t Cry). Now imagine these folk heroes playing out a musical version of a Fox News special on gay-conversion as Bill O’Reilly, Rupert Murdoch, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin. It would be a travesty, but not without artistic potential.
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