Friday, November 12, 2010

Theater Review: The Scottsboro Boys


Oh Boys! Scottsboro is Savvy, Sad and Stupendous
By Lauren Yarger
It’s a show that makes you cringe with awkward, uneasy embarrassment, but it’s not because of the singing, dancing and acting – they’re all superior. In the case of The Scottsboro Boys, the last musical partnership of John Kander and Fred Ebb (both credited with music and lyrics), the unease comes from thoroughly enjoying yourself as a tale of horrible injustice unfolds. It’s guilty pleasure.

Set as a minstrel show, a racist form of entertainment popular in America in the early 19th century, The Scottsboro Boys tells the true tale of nine black men convicted in 1931 Alabama for raping two white women. The men, one of whom was only 13 years old, went through numerous trials and retrials for years, despite the fact that one of the women recanted her story. Their plight prompted protests nationally, changed laws about juries and legal representation and is one of the most glaring examples of racial injustice in the nation’s history.

Turning this tragic story into a musical would seem no easy task, but using the minstrel show form, with its two end men, Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon) with an Interlocutor (John Cullum), a sort of emcee who interacts with them and the others in the troupe, is a masterful stroke of genius. A gripping book by David Thompson (who also has written the book for other Kander and Ebb musicals like Chicago and Steel Pier), skillful and creative direction by Susan Stroman, who also choreographs, and an excellent ensemble cast not only succeed in telling the story, but create one of the savviest, moving and dynamic musicals to hit a Broadway stage is quite a while.

The interlocutor, the endmen and the Scottsboro Boys (Josh Breckenridge, Derrick Cobey, Jeremy Gumbs, Joshua Henry, Rodney Hicks, Kendrick Jones, James T. Lane, Julius Thomas III, Christian Dante White) also assume other identities to help tell the story. White and Lane, for example, play the two women of questionable character who cry rape and Tambo and Bones play the roles of the white redneck-type sheriff and deputy who arrest the nine men doing nothing more than riding a train one day looking for jobs and better lives.

Every performance is excellent, with Henry featured as Haywood Patterson, who rebels at the injustice. “Song and dance” take on a more sinister meaning as he changes his strong assertion of his innocence to a milder, more pleasing plea to accommodate the whites in control of his fate.

Standing out is Gumbs, who plays the youngest victim, Eugene Williams, who taps up a storm and who sings with a lovely tenor advanced for someone so young.

Cullum, always excellent, is perfect as the Interlocutor, a Southern gentleman with kind manners and a friendly smile on the outside who struggles to hide his disdain and utter lack of genuine compassion for the nine victims. Stroman expertly balances the placement of the Interlocutor between center stage and disinterestedly wandering around the action -- like the nation’s indifference toward discrimination at the time -- paying lip service, but not really concerned enough to get involved.

The Interlocutor really just wants a happy ending (a cake walk, in the case of a minstrel show) and insensitively declares one when four of the nine prisoners are released, oblivious to the fact that the five still wrongly imprisoned and facing possible hanging might not agree with him.

Also wandering around the action is The Lady (Sharon Washington) who silently is moved by the boys’ situation. She represents the spirit of African Americans forced to remain quiet – until she speaks in a dramatic way to show how the Scottsboro case was a forerunner to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Intricate storytelling also surfaces with the arrival of Samuel Leibowitz (also played by McClendon), a New York attorney who takes over the Boys’ case. A song called “Financial Advice” in which Jews and their money are ridiculed makes you cringe, until you realize that it brings to light the same kind of prejudice and indifference toward Jews. Leibowitz, after all, took over the case in 1933, just when Hitler was coming into power in Germany.

Beowolf Boritt’s very simple set is framed by three angled frames that look like railroad ties – and a gallows. CChairs with metallic slats are creatively used to create the train car (tamborines become the locomotive's wheels), the prison (the slats are the bars), the court and other locations.

The final number, performed in black face, is the last uneasy step in the journey, in which the audience has been an accomplice from the top when the minstrel show enters through the theater's house. It’s masterful storytelling and Stroman’s best work since The Producers and don't be surprised when it receives numerous award nominations at the end of the season.

The Scottsboro Boys is at the Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th St., NYC. Discounted tickets are available through Masterwork Productions by clicking here.

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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