Monday, November 1, 2010

"Scottsboro Boys" Dark And Provocative, Is An Important Piece of American Musicalal Theatre

Broadcast Union News

The Scottsboro Boys opened last night, with my wife Gayle Palmieri backstage working in the wardrobe department while I sat in the audience, stunned by the power of this extraordinary powerful piece, that includes great songs, a provocative story, innovative staging, and wonderful choreography, performed by a hugely talented cast.

David Rooney wrote in The Hollywood Reporter; It takes an audacious creative team to adopt the minstrel show, one of the most inherently racist forms in the history of popular American entertainment, as the frame for a searing story of Jim Crow-era injustice. But John Kander and Fred Ebb never have shied away from challenging material. These are the songwriters who brought their brassy, neo-Brechtian high style to the rise of Nazism in "Cabaret," the defilement of justice and celebrification of criminals in "Chicago," and the squalor of prison life in "Kiss of the Spider Woman." Those musicals and their themes are echoed with dazzling craftsmanship in "The Scottsboro Boys," one of a handful of projects in the works when Ebb died in 2004.

The show spins a chilling burlesque out of the true story of nine black teenagers whose lives were shattered after their 1931 conviction for the falsified rape of two white Alabama floozies.

Presiding over the harrowing tale is John Cullum's Interlocutor, all blithely condescending Southern gentility as he punctuates the boys' ordeal with rousing calls for, "Everyone's favorite -- the Cakewalk!" Flanking him are classic minstrel-show end men, Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr. Tambo (Forrest Mc-Clendon), who bring lip-smacking comic relish to a series of grotesque caricatures, from crooked lawmen to sadistic prison guards to patronizing attorneys."

From the first ominous pounding of a bass drum and rattle of a tambourine, the score is vintage Kander & Ebb, marrying buoyant entertainment with a sinister double edge.

That dichotomy glitters in such songs as "That's Not the Way We Do Things," which drolly skewers white liberal superiority; "Alabama Ladies," a hoodwinking advertisement for the virtuousness of white-trash tarts; "Southern Days," which lacquers sweet harmonies onto bitter societal imbalance; and "Electric Chair," a death-row showstopper invigorated by Director Susan Stroman's witty appropriation of 1930s cartoon movement. Stroman's work has economy, precision and subversive showmanship.

This is achieved with little more than a collection of silver chairs, inventively rearranged to evoke a train, a prison cell, a bus or a courtroom, bathed in crisp lighting that shifts from beguiling pastels to glowering shadows.

The scarcity of songs without some kind of sardonic bite enhances the resonance of the rare sentimental numbers, notably "Go Back Home," a tender ballad in which the boys yearn for family and freedom.

Most of the ensemble has been with the show since its off-Broadway premiere in March at the Vineyard Theater. Despite playing to a larger house, the boys' vulnerability now cuts deeper, their vigorous commitment matched by their seamlessness as a unit. Among the newcomers, Joshua Henry is a terrific addition in the central role of Haywood, a powerfully masculine presence full of smoldering rage and righteous indignation.

In an age when institutional racism endures in more veiled forms, this bold musical keeps you tapping your feet while it socks you with an emotional punch to the gut. That's a tough combo for mainstream commercial acceptance, but it makes for arresting theater.

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune teater critic writes; A few minutes into the last musical bearing the names of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, just as the shrewdly appropriated but pervasively ignoble Anglo-American tradition of the minstrel show is becoming almost unbearable to watch, one of the Scottsboro Boys starts to sing of his loneliness.

As sung by the deeply resonant Joshua Henry, playing a real-life character who died in an Alabama jail, always professing his innocence of trumped-up rape charges, Kander and Ebb’s simple melody to “Go Back Home” also is almost unbearable.

Almost unbearably beautiful. Right from the first plaintive chord.

And from that critical turn on, “The Scottsboro Boys” starts to do what all the great Kander and Ebb shows (“Cabaret,” “Chicago,” “The Kiss of the Spiderwoman”) have always done. It shows us that longing and tenderness always co-exists with cruelty and corruption. It reveals the human costs of oppression. And it reminds us that all that the venerable showbusiness traditions—vaudeville, cabaret, minstrelsy, Broadway shows themselves—were, at various points in the 20th century, used for cruel purpose. In other words, the musicals of Kander and Ebb, and really only the musicals of Kander and Ebb, make us see that mass-entertainment forms embrace the dark side because we spend so much time there ourselves.

The Scottsboro Boys,” which features a gutsy book by David Thompson and opened Sunday night on Broadway, tells the story of the nine African-American men pulled from a boxcar in 1931 in the Northeast corner of Alabama.

The show is jarring and troubling at first—not least because you are asked to embrace not only this disturbing tale of injustice but also the racist form of its actual re-telling. Some bitter comedy emerges in the frame, performed with disconcerting exuberance, but not the permission to laugh. By the end of this intermissionless show, the tellers have taken control of their own story, but, in practical theatrical terms, that’s a long time to wait. That is the great risk behind “The Scottsboro Boys” (and there is a cost). But it is also the show’s ace in the hole.

The show is stuffed with bravura, impassioned, individual performances that fuse into an inestimably powerful ensemble.

“The Scottsboro Boys” ultimately links the agonies of these boys to broader causes, building a sense of hope and progress that you don’t see in “Chicago” and “Cabaret.”

But then brutal American racism is harder for us to take in the theater than comedic Cook County corruptions. And it is, in the final analysis, an essential subject for Kander and Ebb.

Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY, calls “The Scottsboro Boys” a memorable musical,
determined to challenge even the most sophisticated and inured audiences. Gardner goes on to say; Among the players, standouts include the nimble, sweet-voiced Jeremy Gumbs, as the youngest prisoner, and James T. Lane and Christian Dante White, who appear both as other convicts and, more humorously, the tacky would-be Southern belles who accuse them. As end men "Mr. Bones" and "Mr. Tambo," Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon handily juggle similarly clownish parts, from a booze-addled attorney to a power-drunk sheriff.

Only one real woman appears on stage: Sharon Washington, playing a dignified figure who lingers in the background, not uttering a word until the end. She reminds us that suffering and resolve can be evoked through silence, even in a show as boisterous as this one.

Linday Winer of Newsday says; It's sharp and snappy, imaginative and heartfelt. It has a real American tragedy to tell and some of the best in the business to tell it.

Bloomberg's Jeremy Gerard writes; It’s smashing, and it’s shocking. Deploying little more than an ensemble of gifted performers and a dozen painted chairs, the musical tells the Depression-era story of those nine men falsely accused of rape in Alabama. Trial after trial brings them no relief, not even after their defense is taken over by Samuel Leibowitz, a pinko Jewish lawyer from New York.

Kander and Ebb, along with book writer David Thompson, took the enormous risk of gussying up this bleak story in the tatterdemalion of a minstrel show. With the exception of John Cullum, who serves as the Interlocutor, all the major roles are played -- and played brilliantly -- by black actors. In the key part of prisoner Haywood Patterson, cast newcomer Joshua Henry adds a fiery mix of anger and frustration.

The story is wrenching and the songs rank with Kander and Ebb’s most gorgeous; “Southern Days” -- which starts out as a riff on “My Old Kentucky Home” and, with its lynching imagery, ends up echoing Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” -- still gives me nightmares, Jeremy concludes.

Gayle Palmieri, a 25 year Broadway wardrobe department veteran with over twenty musicals on the Great White Way to her credit says that "The Scottsboro Boys” may well be the most important piece of theatre she has ever had the privilage to be associated with. Gayle went on to say that every middle and high school student in America should see this play.

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