The Scottsboro Boys: Theater Review

THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS - Production still 2- H 2019
Paul Kolnik
With its high-energy ensemble and dynamic direction and choreography, this darkly provocative musical makes a fitting swan song for the duo behind "Cabaret" and "Chicago."

NEW YORK -- It takes an audacious creative team to adopt the minstrel show, one of the most inherently racist forms in the history of popular American entertainment, as the frame for a searing story of Jim Crow-era injustice. But John Kander and Fred Ebb never have shied away from challenging material.

These are the songwriters who brought their brassy, neo-Brechtian high style to the rise of Nazism in Cabaret, the defilement of justice and celebrification of criminals in Chicago and the grim squalor of prison life in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Those musicals and their themes are echoed with dazzling craftsmanship in The Scottsboro Boys, one of a handful of projects in the works when Ebb died in 2004.

With a book by David Thompson and muscular work from director-choreographer Susan Stroman, the show spins a chilling burlesque out of the true story of nine black teenagers whose lives were shattered after their 1931 conviction for the falsified rape of two white Alabama floozies.

Presiding over the harrowing tale is John Cullum's Interlocutor, all blithely condescending Southern gentility as he punctuates the boys' ordeal with rousing calls for, "Everyone's favorite -- the Cakewalk!" Flanking him are classic minstrel-show end men, Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon), who bring lip-smacking comic relish to a series of grotesque caricatures, from crooked lawmen to sadistic prison guards to patronizing attorneys.

From the first ominous pounding of a bass drum and rattle of a tambourine, the score is vintage Kander & Ebb, marrying buoyant entertainment with a sinister double edge.

That dichotomy glitters in such songs as "That's Not the Way We Do Things," which drolly skewers white liberal superiority; "Alabama Ladies," a hoodwinking advertisement for the virtuousness of white-trash tarts; "Southern Days," which lacquers sweet harmonies onto bitter societal imbalance; and "Electric Chair," a death-row showstopper invigorated by Stroman's witty appropriation of 1930s cartoon movement.

The scarcity of songs without some kind of sardonic bite enhances the resonance of the rare sentimental numbers, notably "Go Back Home," a tender ballad in which the boys yearn for family and freedom.

Most of the ensemble has been with the show since its Off-Broadway premiere in March at the Vineyard Theatre. Despite playing to a larger house, the boys' vulnerability now cuts deeper, their vigorous commitment matched by their seamlessness as a unit. Among the newcomers, Joshua Henry is a terrific addition in the central role of Haywood, a powerfully masculine presence full of smoldering rage and righteous indignation.

The cast's lone woman (Sharon Washington) is effective enough as a silent observer, representing the pained mothers, sisters and girlfriends of the misused boys. However, the symbolic device is out of sync with the minstrel conceit, particularly in a superfluous coda that identifies her as a key civil rights figure. It's as if Thompson doesn't trust the audience to place this ignominious chapter in a broader context unaided.

An occasional slackness creeps into the book scenes, and perhaps inevitably, the production loses some of its compactness on a Broadway stage. But Stroman's work has economy, precision and subversive showmanship.

This is achieved with little more than a collection of silver chairs, inventively rearranged to evoke a train, a prison cell, a bus or a courtroom, bathed in crisp lighting that shifts from beguiling pastels to glowering shadows.

In an age when institutional racism endures in more veiled forms, this bold musical keeps you tapping your feet while it socks you with an emotional punch to the gut. That's a tough combo for mainstream commercial acceptance, but it makes for arresting theater.

Venue: Lyceum Theatre, New York (Runs indefinitely)
Cast: Joshua Henry, John Cullum, Colman Domingo, Forrest McClendon, Sharon Washington, Josh Breckenridge, Derrick Cobey, Jeremy Gumbs, Rodney Hicks, Kendrick Jones, James T. Lane, Julius Thomas III, Christian Dante White
Music-lyrics: John Kander, Fred Ebb
Book: David Thompson
Director-choreographer: Susan Stroman
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: Toni-Leslie James Lighting designer: Ken Billington Sound designer: Peter Hylenski
Music director/vocal arrangements: David Loud