Friday, April 8, 2011

CD REVIEW: The Scottsboro Boys

In a fairer world, where every show gets an equal shot at success and failure, with producers who stick with, rather than feel obligated to, a show that they've put money up for, and with a public that not only demands more challenging theatre, but supports it when it comes along, The Scottsboro Boys would not only still be running, but it would be garnering press at a rate like Spider-Man, and be generating ticket sales like The Book of Mormon.  Every season, when people do their inevitable re-cap of the shows that played, the hue and cry for more shows with substance goes up.  EVERYONE agrees: more shows that have something to say while they entertain us, PLEASE.  And yet, when shows come along that challenge, people stay away in droves.  Just ask Stephen Sondheim, who has yet to have a show run over 1,000 performances, and he is the gold standard when it comes to challenging entertainment.

Now I haven't yet seen all of the musicals of the 2010-2011 season, but I can say that The Scottsboro Boys is so far the one to beat on all levels: the staging, the acting and the book and score.  that it has substance is indisputable.  That it is challenging theatre is also.  And I will venture to say that the score is the best not just from this season, but for the last several seasons.  Knowing their track record with Cabaret and Chicago, a show of the same ilk will likely find even greater success in a decade or two when someone comes in and revives it, highlighting the sublime pleasures and amazing quality of the piece.  What was the last show you left feeling that you were somehow a changed person for having had the experience?  I just pray that the Tony voters don't overlook this brilliant little gem.

Title: The Scottsboro Boys
Artist: Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording
Label: Jay Records
Number: CDJAY 1421
Format: Single CD
Case: Jewel Box
Booklet: Full color production photos; Complete lyrics; Liner notes

What I said about the production itself: "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 third was the show that opened last night at the Lyceum Theatre, The Scottsboro Boys.  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 tag line 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.  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."

A note about this recording:  Especially considering the show's quick Broadway demise, I am just grateful that a recording was made at all of the score.  This represents the show as it stood during its off-Broadway premiere at the Vineyard Theatre.  Some cuts, tweaks and minor additions were made en route to Broadway, and it would have been nice to have those as well, but again, I am not complaining.  And, unfortunately, for the actors in both productions, some were in the off-Broadway production and not in the Broadway version and vice versa.  Three of the off-Broadway cast members did not make the transfer: Sean Bradford, Cody Ryan Wise and Brandon Victor Dixon.  They were replaced by, respectively, James T. Lane, Jeremy Gumbs and Joshua Henry.  No slight is intended to Mr. Dixon, Wise or Bradford, all of whom do excellent work on the recording, but I specifically enjoyed the Broadway performances of Lane, Gumbs and Henry, and would love to have had their performances preserved.  That said, had I not seen the Broadway production, the recording is still absolutely top notch.

What I said about the score: "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."

What I have to say about this recording:  SUPERB!  Top quality sound, beautifully engineered orchestrations and balance are just the beginning.  Really, with the exception of some stunningly beautiful stage images created by Susan Stroman, the recording does a remarkable job of transforming a listening experience into an all-senses experience.  The cast sings and, perhaps more importantly, acts each number as if they were doing the show.  And because of that, much of the satirical, pointed bite of the show remains as sharp as ever.  John Cullum fairly drips Southern charm and nastiness all in the same breath, and Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon are absolutely riveting (and a whole bunch scary) as the minstrel show men, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo.  All of the cast sings wonderfully, and Brandon Victor Dixon's rendition of "Go Back Home" is as stunning and heartbreaking on the recording as it was live under the care of Joshua Henry.

Standout numbers include the aforementioned "Hey! Hey! Hey!", "Go Back Home" and "Commencing in Chattanooga."  One can't help but be peeved at "Alabama Ladies," and "Make Friends with the Truth" is as meaningful as it is charming.  In truth, the whole score stands out. There isn't a sub-par number in the bunch.  And John Kander's "Go Back Home", a bonus track on the CD, is touching and sad. 

I'm sure the late Fred Ebb would have been so thrilled with the entire thing.

Grade: A+

(Photos of the Broadway production by Carol Rosegg)

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1 comment:

  1. I'll never forget hearing "Go Back Home" at the Lyceum. I thought, this is what it's like to sit in a Broadway theatre and hear a classic song for the first time. It was so beautiful and it took my breath away to hear Joshua Henry. You're right, it's still stunning on the CD with Brandon Victor Dixon.


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