The Scottsboro Boys: Theater Review

The Scottsboro Boys - Hal Linden - P 2013
Craig Schwartz
The infamous 1930s “Great Alabama Frame-Up” of nine African-American teens for a rape that never happened, narrated in the stylings of a minstrel show, is the crowning achievement of the team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb.

The final collaboration between the hit songwriting team behind "Cabaret" and "Chicago" comes to downtown L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre.

It’s nigh universal that folks today recoil at the least encounter with minstrelsy, that primally all-American racist entertainment that dominated post-Civil War variety before the rise of vaudeville, oblivious that it remains the fountainhead for much of those 20th century popular songs that would comprise the heart of the same Broadway musical theater of which The Scottsboro Boys, now at the Ahmanson Theatre downtown, is the gleefully decadent spawn. That understandable squeamishness gives an in-your-face bite to the framing device of quaintly corrupt stage forms that songwriters John Kander & Fred Ebb also deployed in their most successful shows, Cabaret and Chicago, with which this last endeavor can justly stand in artistry, despite its marked 2010 commercial debut on a Broadway now the province of provincial tourists, receiving 11 Tony nominations without one win.

The Interlocutor (Hal Linden, in Southern colonel drag) makes a patronizingly benign emcee, importuning his adjutants, Mr. Bones (Trent Armand Kendall) and Mr. Tambo (JC Montgomery), and the chorus line of “boys” arrayed in a semi-circle to perform their stereotypical buffooneries and athletically accomplished dancing (his favorite, their cakewalk, under director-choreographer Susan Stroman’s ministrations, is admirably high-stepping). Today, however, the troupe wants to tell their own story, the truth for once, to which the Interlocutor graciously accedes (“Ah yes, a tall tale…”).

The musical caroms from an earnest and heartfelt account of the notorious 1931 travesty of justice, in which the defendants were falsely accused of rape by two white women to avoid their own incarceration on prostitution charges and only saved from prompt hanging after a mock trial by the intervention of Northern defenders (unidentified, but actually the International Labor Defense legal arm of the American Communist Party, and bless ‘em for it). The “Yankee Jews” can continually win new trials on appeal, but with a local jury, the farcical proceedings inevitably lead to renewed guilty verdicts.

At this remove, while raising awareness of the historically titanic injustice, which forged the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that found the exclusion of blacks from jury rolls to deprive black defendants of their right to Constitutional equal protection, certainly remains commendable, the ironies limned in the lampooning of Southern bigotry are now about as remotely antique as minstrelsy was at that time. (Hip comics in clubs were doing a lot of equivalent material by 1960, although, in fairness, Al Jolson was still donning blackface in the movies when the original case occurred, admittedly to diminishing returns.)

Nevertheless, The Scottsboro Boys, despite far less relevance than it presumes and less self-irony than it deserves, is otherwise a surpassingly satisfying musical, particularly in this pitch-perfect production, which manages to respect the integrity of the art forms it condemns. The concept may be vintage Kander & Ebb, and yet the musical model is frankly Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, for my money the greatest of them all. The songs are virtually all clever pastiches of vintage forms, with an ear for keen mimicry and knife-twisting lyrical transgressions of their conventional sentiments. They may not become standards, save us from those today that do, but they are superior parodies with swell, tunefully accurate melodies enhanced by the savvy orchestrations for the seven-piece house band. Stroman’s canny deployment of classic steps with dead-on replicas of precision gestures of bad taste gives the show an authenticity that achieves all the requisite pleasures of a worthwhile musical without compromising them to the high-minded and sardonic point of view. The impeccable cast so flawlessly assay multiple roles in lightning changes of tone and style that to single out Kendall and Montgomery, who are breathtaking, and the charismatic Joshua Henry, reprising his Broadway role as the central defendant Haywood Patterson, may be unfair, but it must be done.

In the last 25 years or so, what might be called the post-Sondheim period, it has been a lucky year indeed when there appears a major musical of substantial artistic value and with the classical virtues of the form. The unruly yet sophisticated The Scottsboro Boys must be counted one of those cherished few. 

Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, downtown Los Angeles (through June 30)
Cast: Joshua Henry, Hal Linden, Trent Armand Kendall, JC Montgomery, Gilbert L. Bailey II, David Bazemore, Christopher James Culberson, Justin Prescott, Clinton Roane, Cedric Sanders, Deandre Sevon, Christian Dante White, C. Kelly Wright
Direction & Choreography: Susan Stroman
Music and Lyrics: John Kander & Fred Ebb
Book: David Thompson
Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt
Lighting Design: Ken Billington
Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James 
Sound Design: Jon Weston
Orchestrations: Larry Hochman
Musical Arrangements: Glen Kelly
Vocal Arrangements: David Loud
Music Director: Jesse Kissel
Associate Director & Choreographer: Jeff Whiting