Saturday, December 26, 2009

On the Radar: The Scottsboro Boys

Like people who go to action and horror movies to get their vicarious fill of murder, violence and mayhem, I tend to get the maximum enjoyment out of theatre that provides me the vicarious thrill of delving into the dark side of the human experience. I think that seeing the performers live and just a few feet away makes the thrill even greater.

I bring this up because as I look back on similar "On the Radar" and review blogs, I notice (and you might, too) that I am drawn to musicals that have a darker side to them - Memphis, next to normal, Bonnie and Clyde, and even Wonderland. And so, too, is the next musical I've put on my personal radar: The Scottsboro Boys by John Kander, Fred Ebb (music and lyrics) and David Thompson (book), with direction and choreography by Susan Stroman.

This show, which was workshopped earlier in 2009, and will subsequently be produced by The Vineyard Theatre, is a musical about about a sad chapter in American history. In the 1930's nine black men were sentenced to death by a jury comprised entirely of whites for the rape of two white women on a freight train. After spawning several riots and protests, the Supreme Court overturned their death sentence, effectively killing the notion that a juror can be excluded because of his/her race. They did not, however, over turn the conviction and the men spent much time in prison.

Word-of-mouth and an article in The New York Post said of the workshop that this is Kander, Ebb and Stroman at their best, saying that the music and lyrics (as well as the staging) hearken back to the time when they were doing "adult," "serious and thought-provoking work," not unlike the shows Sondheim and Prince once did. Stroman's work, with just a few chairs and a bare stage apparently showed as much or more creativity than her previous works, The Producers and Crazy for You.

The Vineyard company will be headed by Tony-winner John Cullum, Brandon Victor Dixon(above), who also did the workshop, and Colman Domingo. Other cast members include Sean Bradford, Josh Breckenridge, Derrick Cobey, Rodney Hicks, Kendrick Jones, Forrest McClendon, Julius Thomas III, Sharon Washington, Cody Ryan Wise and Christian White.

This entirely new production, staged by Stroman (below) as a minstrel show, with Cullum acting as "interloper" between the whites and the coloreds, features one of the last full works Kander and Ebb completed before Ebb's death in 2004. Boys sounds similar in tone to their dark, but richly satisfying The Visit, and marks a departure from their more "show bizzy" works like the recent Curtains.

What the future will hold for this show (and The Visit) remains to be seen. But in these capable hands and with the backing of The Vineyard (birthplace of [title of show] and Avenue Q) it is as bright as it can be. Tickets go on sale on January 4; the show runs February 12 - March 21, 2010, with an Opening Night scheduled for March 10.

Photos: TOP: Kander and Ebb (Getty Images); CENTER: The Scottsboro Boys (Getty Images) and Brandon Victor Dixon (Broadway; and BOTTOM: Susan Stroman (from her website).

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