The cast of the new Kander-and-Ebb musical The Scottsboro Boys (photo: Carol Rosegg)
BOTTOM LINE: I haven’t been this moved by a piece of theatre in a very, very, very long time.
Oh, Kander and Ebb. You’re quite a team. Chicago and Cabaret are two of my all-time favorite musicals; I find both stories endearing, surprising, uplifting, and captivating, despite the commercially obvious nature they’ve acquired over the years. You are unquestionably two of the most gifted contributors to American musical theatre in the past century.
Your newest musical, The Scottsboro Boys, has just opened off-Broadway, and I have to admit that although I was excited to see it, I didn’t think you would outdo yourselves. But holy crap, have you ever. Not only is this new musical entertaining — it’s directed and choreographed by the brilliant Susan Stroman, with book by David Thompson — it’s intelligent, thoughtful, and incredibly important.
I’m not a big gusher anymore — it’s hard to be effusive when you’re always thinking analytically. The Scottsboro Boys, however, has rendered me unrestrained. I think everyone should see this show. The caveat here is that although it’s a new musical from a recognizable production team, it’s certainly not a feel-good experience — or, rather, it is, but in an uncomfortably ironic way.
See, the production is a minstrel show, a throwback to the stereotyped, racially insensitive form of entertainment popular in the very early 20th century. In The Scottsboro Boys, we see 11 triple-threat performers barrel onto the stage and get ready for a night of entertainment. They’re black, and their master of ceremonies is an older white gentleman (played by John Cullum), the only white actor on the stage. As they hunker down for a helluva show (a big opening dance number with tambourines starts things off), Cullum’s character announces that tonight the troupe will tell the story of the Scottsboro Boys.
The story is based on fact, on an important part of American history that doesn’t get enough prominence in history classes. What proceeds is the unfolding of a tale about wrongful imprisonment, civil liberties, truth and sticking up for your beliefs no matter the cost. The Scottsboro Boys were a group of black teenagers in the early 1930s. They were arrested for a crime they didn’t commit and spent the subsequent several years going through trial after trial (always found guilty) and appealing their case. Although they were in Alabama, a state that wasn’t known to look to kindly upon blacks, they had considerable support from the north, thus funding the several appeals and using the opportunity to fight for civil rights.
The subject matter is unquestionably uncomfortable, and that’s the point. The antics on stage are entertaining to be sure — but how couth is it to laugh at a minstrel show, something that is obviously and intentionally racist? And that’s the point. The Scottsboro Boys intends to expose the irony, and for that reason, the show is much deeper and more intellectual than similar productions. Chicago is about murderers and felons, but everyone is still endearing. Cabaret takes place in early Nazi Germany and there are certainly dark hints of the brewing oppression, but these political undertones aren’t the basis of the plot. The Scottsboro Boys brings this hateful time in American history to the forefront of the show’s message, and it does so in an incomparably consequential fashion.
For this reason, The Scottsboro Boys is a more provocative theatergoing experience. However, it’s still quite entertaining. The cast is supurb. Coleman Domingo, as Mr. Bones, and Forrest McClendon, as Mr. Tambor lead the minstrel show and then take on the roles of the white authority figures in the story. Their cheery, make em smile disposition turns eerily sinister. The Scottsboro Boys themselves are a triple-threat bunch. Although the dance numbers don’t evoke the escapism that other musical theatre performances can, Stroman’s choreography is perfectly in tune with the nature of the show. One standout routine is a tap number performed around an electric chair as the youngest of the boys is taunted with his impending fate.
Production wise, the show is gorgeous. Some of Kander and Ebb’s previous productions have had a minimalist design aesthetic, and The Scottsboro Boys is similarly designed. The show opens with a sort of art installation made of a dozen or so silver chairs, all intertwined and stuck to each other in interesting ways — sort of in a clump upstage. Throughout the show, those chairs are moved and transformed to become a train, a jail, a courtroom and a bus. With the addition of two long planks, the set (by Beowulf Borritt) becomes a creative playground for creating these scenes. Gorgeous lighting design (by Kevin Adams) contributes to the basic yet incredibly transformative look of the show.
The brilliant way this story is brought to life, coupled with the substance of the narrative, make it a definite must-see. Plus, the music is catchy, the performances compelling, and the presentation completely engaging from the first note the orchestra plays. This show stuck with me long after I left the theatre. It is rare that a new musical resonates so deeply with its audience, but I could tell from the uproarious standing ovation that my fellow audience members felt the same. It’s an important story, and this show is produced with respect for its reality. The experience presents so much more than musicals are generally able to offer the audience. I seriously hope it gets a life after this short, off-Broadway run. It deserves to be seen.
The Scottsboro Boys plays at the Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St., through Sun 4/18. Performances are Tue 7 PM, Wed-Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, and Sun 3 and 7 PM. Tickets are $70; based on availability, $20 rush tickets can be purchased at the box office two hours before the show (rush tickets are cash only). For more show info or to buy tickets, visit vineyardtheatre.org.