I can count three times in my more than twenty-five years of attending Broadway shows where I held my breath during an entire performance. The first was Kiss of the Spider Woman; the next was the 1997 revival of Cabaret. The third was the show that opened last night at the Lyceum Theatre, The Scottsboro Boys. Of course, all three have the same composers, John Kander and Fred Ebb, and it speaks volumes about what true masters of the art form they are/were. All three have a common thread (along with their hit Chicago) in that all deal with very intense, deep and troubling topics and all of them use an outside framework to tell the story. I suppose it would be easy to say that they have struck a formula that works and they go back to it again and again. But that would be short changing their masterworks in a major way.
You see, they (and their collaborators) use these frames with specificity to the time in which they are writing. Spider Woman's "break with reality" comes in the form of Technicolor film fantasies, certainly a viable art form for any show that takes place from the 1930's or so on; Cabaret uses a seedy nightclub in an increasingly Nazi-fied Berlin to comment on the "real-life" action of its characters. And so it only makes sense, in a powerful and uncomfortable way, that a story about real life African-Americans wrongly accused of a double rape during the Jim Crow days in the South of the United States relies on the frame of a minstrel show to tell its story.
Why it works in all of these instances, generally, is that the frame literally fits the exact era in which the central story takes. Telling Roxi and Velma's story as a series of vaudeville acts and routines fits Chicago dramaturgically, just as telling the story of the nine Scottsboro Boys, propelled by deep seeded racism, is told as a series of racially degrading minstrel show routines. But beyond that logical, timely fit, these frames work for two larger reasons. First and foremost Kander and Ebb never forget the primary reason for creating a musical. It is supposed to be an entertaining few hours away from reality for the audience. And you cannot argue that any show that they have done in this style isn't entertaining. Second, they also never forget that even within these frames, the modern audience needs to be able to understand and accept it, whether they are familiar with the form or not. And so, in the instance of this show, I really came into it knowing only that minstrel shows featured music styles of the time (including ragtime, jazz and catchy ditty songs like "The Camptown Races" and "Oh, Susannah") and that it had a very clear racist agenda, including performers in black face telling jokes in drawls and accents of the slaves.
But with an eye toward a 21st century audience, Kander and Ebb's lyrics, David Thompson's book and Susan Stroman's choreography and direction, all have conspired to give the minstrel show a modern edge. Things are heightened and exaggerated well beyond the minstrel milieu, the jokes are pointed and razor sharp so there is no ambiguity as to the meaning, and the staging is ultra-modern, spare, tight and endlessly creative. All of these elements, have, naturally, been studiously kept in check so that the minstrel show tradition is honored (I'm not sure if that is the right word), but also used to bring out the deeper and more insidious themes of the history it is telling. In short, the frame here is a device to make us relate to the story in a musical way and to not lessen the blow of all of the "ugly" we are presented with, but to trick (again, maybe not the right word) us into learning as we are entertained. As the tagline says, “Entertain the truth.”
So complete is the package, it is really difficult to single out any one or two elements or persons as to the reason why this is one of the best new musicals of recent memory.
Is it Kander and Ebb’s score (with orchestrations by Larry Hochman) that magically matches tone and style to the wide variety of emotions the story demands? Yes. They have written one of their best scores ever with perhaps the widest range of any show they’ve done since Cabaret. The jaunty opening number, “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!” is a toe-tapper to be sure, and the plaintive power ballad “Go Back Home” is the kind of no holds barred tear-jerker/call to arms not heard on Broadway in years.
Then there is the bold, entertaining and visually stunning staging by Susan Stroman. There are so few modern masters these days who can so closely meld together the demands of an era, the story and the expectations of today’s audiences. Witness the humorous yet biting shadow story of “Make Friends with the Truth.” A staple of the minstrel show, the act also fortifies Haywood Patterson’s resolve to tell the truth despite the certain death it will bring. Or the easy style of “Commencing in Chattanooga,” a jovial, bluesy work-song sung by the Scottsboro Boys as they embark on a future full of promise. In it, Stroman has the silver chairs which primarily make up Beowulf Boritt’s unsettlingly stark and simple setting. The number is made all the more poignant when juxtaposed with the jarring “Alabama Ladies,” which with a single lie, changes the boys’ lives forever. A moment that will likely be forever etched in my mind (not unlike the final chilling moments of the Cabaret revival) is the number, “Electric Chair,” in which Ms. Stroman has perfectly blended the needs of the show by creating a tap dance trio in which the principal dancer is alternately shadowed and mimicked, while it tells the story of the youngest Scottsboro Boy’s nightmare about being out to death for a crime he did not commit. There are several other very visually thrilling moments throughout, including the claustrophobic and extremely tense scenes in the prison cell, the solitary confinement and the simply effective use of a small amount of dirt used to represent the entire floor.
Perhaps the most graphic use of direction and technical elements (including the superb lighting and lack of it by designer Ken Billington) comes in two jaw dropping scenes: the transformation of the boys from men to prisoner and in Haywood’s attempted escape. In the former after their conviction, the men assemble in a line upstage and in silhouette strip naked and re-dress in prison uniforms of blinding white (costumes by Toni -Leslie James), and as they finish their transformation, their old clothes are literally swept off the stage by the guards like so much trash. The latter scene has the chairs and some boards strategically placed so that the escape is done by climbing, rolling, crawling, and running. Combined with the lighting, the staging of this was as exciting as any prison escape captured on film.
David Thompson’s tight script also deserves high praise for its boldness and its subtlety. While the jokes and broad strokes of the minstrel show fairly blast off the stage allowing the audience a laugh and forcing that same audience into (I would hope) a horrified recognition at the fact that what they are laughing at is appalling. The minstrel show is ruled over by its faux genteel Interlocutor, and two clowns who play broad types, here called Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo. What makes this all the more disturbing is that these “clown” roles are played by black men rather than white men in black face. The fact that they are also literally the most colorful thing on the stage makes their presence all the more noticeable and unavoidable.
Thompson (and company) has wisely chosen not to tell each of the individual boys’ stories, which might give it the feel of A Chorus Line or Cats. Instead, each of the boys are given choice bits and telling moments that telescope everything we need to know about each without miring the whole evening down in plot. The anchoring of the piece instead falls mostly to Haywood Patterson, the moral compass of the show, with heavy contributions from the youngest boy, Eugene Williams. The “story” is also told by the two women who accuse the boys - Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, the county officials who botch and govern the case, and ultimately, their staunchest defender, Samuel Liebowitz.
Of course, all of this would be for naught without a cast that can handle its demands. If there was ever a case for a total cast Tony Award, these folks are it. They are so energized and energizing, so in tune with each other and the material, and so adept at creating well defined, multiple characters each, it is almost impossible to believe that such quality exists.
The sole Caucasian in the cast is the great John Cullum, who is as charming as a snake, with his broad, inviting smile and his slow, easy drawl. You are alternately drawn in and repulsed as he hits with a deadly combination of impeccable manners and ill will. Every time he beckoned, “Let’s give ‘em a cakewalk, Boys!” a chill ran down my spine. And the ethereal and unexplained presence (until the final shocking and satisfying moment) of The Lady was mysterious and interesting as played nearly wordlessly by Sharon Washington. It says a lot that a silent, usually out of the way actor can have such an impact, but she certainly did.
The Scottsboro Boys themselves were a wondrous force to be reckoned with, as it should be. Josh Breckenridge, Derrick Cobey, and Rodney Hicks all add much to the canvas, even as they played basically one character a piece. Kendrick Jones and Julius Thomas II are terrific as the specialty dancers in the “Electric Chair” number, and Christian Dante White and James T. Lane do surprisingly realistic portrayals of the female accusers finding just the right balance between the natural laughs men playing women badly should get and the anger that they generate as their lies snowball out of control.
Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon both turn in Tony-worthy performances as the minstrel show jokers and broadest of characters. Both sing and dance with an edgy abandon, and so completely give in to the racist demands of their roles, it is mind-blowing. That both manage to walk that fine line between overdoing and bawdy entertainment speaks to the quality and thoughtfulness of these actors and their director. One can see that each movement and characterization has been thoughtfully placed and carried out, yet it never seems anything less than organically of the moment.
It is, however, the two star-making (and likely Tony nominated) performances by Jeremy Gumbs, the lone child of the group, and leading actor Joshua Henry that are what propel The Scottsboro Boys from great theatre to superb, once in a rare while theatre. Young Mr. Gumbs carries himself with the same professionalism and quality of the rest of the company. There is not a trace of “child actor” or “cutesy” acting in this performance. He has the voice of an angel that perfectly blends with the men, and he has a natural presence that at once evokes sympathy and awe. When he plaintively cries out during his nightmare it brought tears to my eyes, while his subsequent tap dance number thrilled every musical-loving cell in my body.
I’ve been a Joshua Henry fan since his exciting supporting role in American Idiot, but this performance catapults him into an entirely different realm. He is a genuine triple threat - his dancing is superb and his acting and singing are truly the stuff of theatre legend. His performance is the one to beat this season, and is on par with such recently celebrated performances as Ebersole, Ripley and Clark. When he sings “Go Back Home” one understands immediately what is meant by “musical theatre heaven.”
To find flaw with anything about this show would be the very definition of unnecessary nit-picking. It is rare indeed these days to find a show so complete in terms of theatricality, style, grace, meaning and sheer entertainment. The time flies, and even as you are propelled to the story’s heroic and disheartening conclusions, you will find yourself a willing passenger on the ride of a lifetime.
The show started with a breathtaking silent few moments, and ended with the same silence. Before the lights were completely down, we, transported and changed, numb from the journey, stood as one. Only then did I exhale.
(Photos by Paul Kolnik)
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