Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The 'Boys' Are Back

photo by Paul Kolnik

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, Colman Domingo, Joshua Henry, Rodney Hicks, Kendrick Jones, Forrest McClendon, Julius Thomas III, Sharon Washington, Christian Dante White

Performances began October 7, 2010
Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th Street

Now on Broadway, The Scottsboro Boys loses none of its power by transferring from the intimate Vineyard theater to a bigger stage. If anything, this deliberately (and anachronistically) shocking musical based on the true story of nine young black men unjustly condemned for raping two white women in Alabama even more potently grabs its larger audience by the throat each night.

Kander and Ebb’s musicals have run the gamut from the frivolity of Steel Pier to the psychological drama of Kiss of the Spider Woman to the dark satire of Chicago: but The Scottsboro Boys is another animal entirely. It’s structured as a minstrel show, complete with a smilingly glib white interlocutor (played by the ageless John Cullum) who, along with the 11 black actors, plays various roles. Kander’s appealingly tuneful music is often set off against Ebb’s appallingly disquieting lyrics, particularly on such ironic show-stoppers as the electrifying “Electric Chair” and the scathing “Southern Days.”

Minstrelsy itself is lampooned during the finale, when the black actors come out in black face and sing and dance joyfully about their own demise, until—in the most fiendishly inventive bit of director-choreographer Susan Stroman’s bold staging—they disgustingly wipe off their faces and reveal the true response to racism. That the predominantly white audience seems most uncomfortable during “Financial Advice,” whose cynical lyrics spell out a Southern lawyer’s contempt for New York Jews, reminds us that racial issues remain in 2010.

If I must single one member out of a cast that’s outstanding across the board, it’s newcomer Joshua Henry in the pivotal role of Haywood Patterson, the most outspoken of the accused nine men. Henry’s ability to humanize Haywood—whose inner strength and unwavering belief in what’s right hover like a holy spirit over the entire production—is one of the major reasons that The Scottsboro Boys remains such strong stuff.

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