Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

The Scottsboro Boys
SpeakEasy Stage Company
Review by Nancy Grossman

Also see Nancy's recent review of An American in Paris


The Cast
Photo by Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots
There are many factors at play in determining whether or not a show will be a hit on Broadway or even enjoy a respectable run. Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre premiered The Scottsboro Boys, by the legendary songwriting team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb and bookwriter David Thompson, in the spring of 2010 prior its Broadway run that fall. Although it received 12 Tony Award nominations, the Broadway production won none (it was the year of The Book of Mormon) and ran for only 78 performances, including previews. Fast forward to October 2016, and SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of the New England premiere has been extended for an additional week of performances due to unprecedented demand. As often happens, Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault takes a show that had less success in New York and spins it into gold in the intimate confines of the Roberts Studio Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.

To be sure, the subject matter and format of the musical are challenging, as it uses the decidedly non-P.C. minstrel show to tell the true story of nine African-American teenagers who were jailed in Alabama in 1931 for a crime they did not commit. Falsely accused of raping two white women on a train, the boys, ranging in age from 12 to 19, avoided being lynched, but endured years of incarceration and numerous trials in which they were wrongly convicted, even after one of the women recanted her testimony. Tackling this highly charged and socially important story, Kander and Ebb found a way to make it interesting musically as they had done previously with Chicago, Cabaret, and The Visit, each of which dealt with caustic themes.

The Scottsboro Boys shares a little glimpse into each of the individual personalities, but singles out Haywood Patterson (De'Lon Grant) as the main focus. Even as they are participants in the minstrel show, the young men maintain their dignity and are shown respect for their plight, in contrast to the ridicule heaped upon their white jailers and tormentors. The fact that most of the latter characters are portrayed by African-American actors (Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Brandon G. Green) is a shock to the system at first, but their grossly stereotypical interpretations have greater impact because of their race. The sole Caucasian actor (Russell Garrett), not so ironically dressed in a Colonel Sanders-style white suit, serves as the Interlocutor who basically conducts the flow of the minstrel show, as well as the judge who rules on the boys' case, and the Governor of Alabama. Although his character is occasionally sympathetic, Garrett is the touchstone by which the behavior of the white segment of society in that time period must be judged and it is a sorry state.

Daigneault directs with sensitivity and draws superb performances across the board from the cast of thirteen. The Scottsboro Boys are played by Darren Bunch, Taavon Gamble, Sheldon Henry, Wakeem Jones, Steven Martin, Darrell Morris, Jr., Aaron Michael Ray, and Isaiah Reynolds. Morris and Reynolds also play the accusers Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, respectively, and merely by donning hats and skirts over their prison uniforms, they transform into feminine versions of themselves. Each alters his walk into a sashay and raises the pitch of his voice slightly, and the effect is that the audience begins to see them as women, not men pretending to be women. Shalaye Camillo (The Lady) is the lone female in the cast, a constant, dignified presence on the sidelines who utters very few words, but delivers a powerful message.

Green and Parent both play various characters, but their chief roles are as Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones, stock members of the minstrelsy troupe. Green also plays a nasty deputy and prison guard, as well as the Jewish lawyer from New York who takes on the boys' appeal. Parent is over the top as the racist sheriff, but downright chilling as the erudite Attorney General who spouts anti-Semitic inferences during cross-examination. After a four-year absence from Boston stages, Grant returns triumphantly in his charismatic turn as Haywood. His story arc demands a range of emotions and he has the gravitas to portray the man as he matures and stands up for himself despite the cost.

The stellar acting is matched by heavenly singing and snazzy dancing to Ilyse Robbins' evocative choreography. Musical director Matthew Stern plays keyboards and conducts four musicians who capture the eclectic styles of the score, mixing gospel, jazz, ragtime, and melodic ballads. Eric Levenson's scenic design consists of a proscenium arch upstage to frame the minstrel show, and lighting designer Daisy Long lines the lip of the Roberts stage with footlights. The boys are in drab prison garb for most of the show, but costume designer Miranda Kau Giurleo gives them fancy duds (I don't want to spoil the effect) for the grand finale. Sound design by David Remedios includes clanging jail cell doors and gunshots, and guarantees that we hear the voices and all the beautiful harmony loud and clear above the band. Kudos to fight choreographer Angie Jepson for many realistic scuffles.

The Scottsboro Boys capitalizes on the duality of its entertainment value and its important social message. It captures the audience with upbeat, exhilarating song and dance numbers and gives us sympathetic characters who we can care about, as well as villains we can abhor. However, there comes a point where the emotional tide turns and the weight of all that we have observed starts to push us under the surface. It is an indelible vision when the African-American characters wipe off the blackface makeup and reveal their natural skin tones. They cannot wipe away the degradation and racial prejudice associated with that minstrel tradition, nor the pain and suffering of the Scottsboro Boys and countless others who have been and continue to be persecuted. The Lady speaks the powerful last words in this story. Long may they resonate.

The Scottsboro Boys, performances extended through November 26, 2016, at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Roberts Studio Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.SpeakEasyStage.com.

Music and Lyrics: John Kander and Fred Ebb; Book: David Thompson; Original Direction and Choreography: Susan Stroman; Director: Paul Daigneault; Musical Director: Matthew Stern; Choreography: Ilyse Robbins; Scenic Design: Eric Levenson; Costume Design: Miranda Kau Giurleo; Lighting Design: Daisy Long; Sound Design: David Remedios; Fight Choreography: Angie Jepson; Production Stage Manager: Tareena D. Wimbish; Assistant Stage Manager: Katie Scarlett

Cast (in alphabetical order): Shalaye Camillo, Russell Garrett, Brandon G. Green, Maurice Emmanuel Parent; Scottsboro Boys: Darren Bunch, Taavon Gamble, De'Lon Grant, Sheldon Henry, Wakeem Jones, Steven Martin, Darrell Morris, Jr., Aaron Michael Ray, Isaiah Reynolds


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