Thursday, April 1, 2010

Kander and Ebb's Minstrelry


The Scottsboro Boys

Music and Lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb

Book by David Thompson

Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman

Starring Sean Bradford, Josh Breckenridge, Derrick Cobey, John Cullum, Brandon Victor Dixon, Colman Domingo, Rodney Hicks, Kendrick Jones, Forrest McClendon, Julius Thomas III, Sharon Washington, Cody Ryan Wise, Christian White

February 12-April 18, 2010

Vineyard Theatre

100 East 15th Street

Like earlier smash hits Cabaret, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s latest musical, The Scottsboro Boys, tackles a subject not necessarily tailor-made for the stage: the tragic story of nine young black men in Scottsboro, Alabama, falsely accused of raping two white women and railroaded to prison in 1931.

The Scottsboro Boys has much to say about racism in America in the 20th century—and even the 21st. But is it fodder for a musical? Well, why not? Even though it has problems, The Scottsboro Boys is a powerful indictment of our country’s most embarrassing legacy, not only showing how justice is tied to the color of one’s skin but also how racist threads have run through even the most innocent kinds of staged entertainment.

It’s with the latter that Kander, Ebb and book writer David Thompson hit on a cunning device: the entire musical is performed like a minstrel show in reverse, with the events leading up to and following the boys’ trials played out as burlesque. The eleven black actors making up the core of The Scottsboro Boys play the nine accused young men and two others, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, who also enact a white sheriff, deputy, attorney general and prison guards. Two of the nine also play white women of questionable repute whose accusations condemned the boys to wrongful imprisonment, loss of years of freedom and, eventually, their lives.

Most controversial is when the Boys appear for a final number wearing blackface, and our initial shock is replaced by sadness at our shameful civil rights history—it’s unfortunate that the creators thought it necessary to turn a silent female (who watches the entire proceedings onstage) into Rosa Parks for a redundant and didactic epilogue.

Added to this mostly dazzling display is another of Kander’s infectious, tuneful scores. The first notes of the opening “Minstrel March” herald what’s to come: toe-tapping melodies upon which acid is often poured in the form of Ebb’s forceful lyrics. The songs run the gamut from the joyful “Go Back Home” and touching “Nothin’” to the gleefully sarcastic “Southern Days” and disturbingly upbeat “You Can’t Do Me.”

All of this is staged by director-choreographer Susan Stroman in her signature style, whose details come off even more triumphantly on the Vineyard Theatre’s small stage. Beowulf Boritt’s starkly simple set ingeniously deploys several metal and wooden chairs to become, variously, a train, a prison cell, or a courtroom; Kevin Adams’ lighting, Peter Hylenski’s sound design and Toni-Leslie James’ costumes are first-class.

The actors are, to a man, flawless. Although stage vet John Cullum is our guiding spirit as the minstrel show’s Interlocutor, it’s the 11 brilliant leading men who play the Boys and other parts that are the heart of the show. To (unfairly) single out just two: Colman Domingo, who shrewdly juggles several white characters whom he lampoons mercilessly but engagingly; and Brandon Victor Dixon, simply outstanding as Haywood Paterson, whose singing becomes even more emotional as it clutches at the audience in a way rarely seen on or off Broadway.

originally posted in

No comments: