Regional Reviews: Chicago
Finally, when rights were released for the Kander and Ebb Scottsboro following a 2013-2014 production in London, it was Porchlight Music Theatre who won them in Chicago. We're now finally able to see the piece that brought the landmark civil rights case of the Scottsboro Boys to the consciousness of the theatregoing public.
This recipient of 12 Tony Award nominations is, as reported, a significant workdetailing with clarity and emotion the societal outrage and human catastrophe this case represented. It's a complicated story to tellthe nine defendants went through numerous appeals as lawyers came and wentand while none of the boys was ever executed, the dispositions of their cases varied. David Thompson's book streamlines the story to its most essential elements. As he skips much of the historical detail, combines characters, and simplifies the politics, Thompson spends more time inside the jail cells with the boys and with the help of Kander and Ebb's songs brings us into their feelings.
The score has not been unknown, thanks to the original cast recording, with both music and lyrics credited to both Kander and Ebb. Though through most of their partnership Kander wrote the music and Ebbs the words, Kander finished the Scottsboro lyrics after Ebb's death in 2004. The songs employ idioms of the early 20th century, like ragtime and jazz, and make a varied score suiting the dramatic conceit of telling the story within the context of a minstrel show. After a brief opening number in the minstrel style ("Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!"), there's an upbeat and jazzy "second opening number," if you will ("Commencing in Chattanooga"), that sets up the historical story by showing the boys as they hop the freight train that will ultimately lead them to their legal disaster. Later, there's a lovely ballad ("Go Back Home") sung from their jail cells. The penultimate vocal number is a song of defiance ("You Can't Do Me") that is a perfect example of the team's musical and lyrical voices. I guess it could be considered a criticism to say this song would have easily fit in Chicago, or even Kiss of the Spider Woman, but given that this is the last of the duo's collaborations, who cares? It's enough to have one more vintage song from the creators of so many great musicals.
Porchlight has hired a perfect cast and creative team to rise to the challenges of this piece. Following the traditional structure of the minstrel shows, there's an Interlocuter, or emcee of sorts. If the idea of an amorally neutral emcee leading the narrative of a story of evil sounds like Kander and Ebb's Cabaret, re-read the last sentence of the previous paragraph. The role is taken here by the estimable Larry Yando, who again displays his ability to project menace behind charming facades. We've seen him in such roles as Scrooge, The Lion King's Scar, and Richard Nixon and one couldn't imagine a better choice for the Interlocutor, (who also has roles in the story within the minstrel show as a judge and the Governor of Alabama). The Interlocutor is flanked by two black minstrels, Mr. Bones (Denzel Tsopnang ) and Mr. Tambo (Mark J. P. Hood). These sidekicks offer bad puns and other tasteless humor while also playing parts in the story as broadly as real minstrel performers might have done.
There's a challenge, of course, in presenting a story with nine protagonistsespecially when they are all of the same gender, race and background and, save one, roughly the same age. Thompson's solution is to focus mostly on just one of the boys, Heywood Patterson. He was the last to leave custody (though he ultimately died in jail anyway, imprisoned in Michigan for an entirely different crime). Patterson is played and sung magnificently here by James Earl Jones II. Jones absolutely kills with the beautiful "Go Back Home," as well as the comic "Make Friends with the Truth" and the anthemic "You Can't Do Me." The remaining eight are no slouches, but other than Jos N. Banks (who gets to double, impressively, as accuser Victoria Price), they don't get a lot of individual time. They all make an impressive ensemble, though, being kept busy by the high-stepping and distinctive choreography by Florence Walker-Harris and associate choreographer Breon Arzell. There's an impressive step choreography number for a chain gang scene that I presume is mainly Arzell's contribution, given that he won a Jeff award last year for the step dancing in Oracle Theatre's production of The Hairy Ape.
Director Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. and music director get fine work from their cast and designers. Samantha Jones' costumes evoke both the minstrel show setting and the period of the historical play within the minstrel show. Andrei Onegin's set cleverly employs a freight train boxcar with secret windows and doors throughout the interior story, supplemented by Ross Hoppe's projections to establish other locations as well as an emotional slide show of historical photos for the curtain call.
As worthy and moving a piece as this is, the "minstrel show" conceit devised by creators Stroman, Kander, Ebb and Thompson has its problemsproblems that may be unsolvable for any director. The sardonic tones of the upbeat minstrel scenes are frequently at odds with the emotional intensity of the historical scenes. Action jumps from boys who are shown to be at best lonely and at worst terrified to be facing possible execution abruptly to flashy, broadly played musical numbers. This sort of juxtaposition worked in Cabaret, but it doesn't work so well in this piece. The minstrelly tone gets tiresome, even borderline offensive after a time. Might the stage and musical directors have navigated these tonal shifts differently, to make them less jarring and to make the musical more cohesive? I don't know how. The piece seems a bit full of itself in its theatrically, the conceit making it seem, well, conceited. On top of that, we have an unnamed "Lady" (Cynthia Clancy) who at first appears to be a minstrel show patron, then perhaps a mother of one or all of the boys, and finally someone else not in the story at all. The various devices all get to be a bit much at times.
But even after those jarring moments, The Scottsboro Boys frequently returns to something wonderful. A heartfelt moment, an incident that angers, or a classic song in the distinctive voices of Kander and Ebb. It's an important, even if imperfect piece and is performed here with consummate professionalism.
The Scottsboro Boys will play at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, through March 12, 2017. For more information and ticketing, visit www.porchlightmusictheatre.org or call 773-327-5252.