Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Scottsboro Boys
Phoenix Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's review of School of Rock


The Cast
Photo by Reg Madison Photography
Songwriting duo John Kander and Fred Ebb never shied away from controversial topics. Their hit Tony winning shows Cabaret and Kiss of the Spider Woman focused on the rise of Nazism and the harsh treatment of prisoners in a Latin American jail. One of the last musicals they wrote together, The Scottsboro Boys, deals with real-life racial injustice in 1930s Alabama. Phoenix Theatre and Black Theatre Troupe present the area premiere of the show in a crackerjack production teeming with a talented cast and spotless direction from the associate director of the original Broadway show. It amounts to an intriguing and provocative, though not entirely perfect, musical endeavor.

The Scottsboro Boys features a minstrel show theme and a "show within a show" context to present the real story of nine young African-American men who were falsely convicted of raping two white women on a train near Scottsboro, Alabama. The show follows these nine innocent teenagers, who all boarded a train in 1931 looking for work, from the unjust accusations they faced to the numerous trials they endured until the cast ultimately discloses what eventually happened to the young men.

Kander and Ebb's score has many knock-out numbers and David Thompson's book skillfully interweaves the use of the minstrel show, something that was highly popular at the time of the original trials, with the individual plights of these young men to effectively present a provoking and poignant story.

The use of the minstrel show theme has its merits, especially when it is turned on its ear with black actors comically playing the majority of the white characters in the story in direct comparison to how white people wore black face make-up in these shows to evoke comical caricatures of African Americans. However, there are a few things that don't quite land. The use of corny jokes and comical numbers is an odd choice to detail the pain and suffering of this group of men, especially when the serious non-musical scenes on the train and in their cell are so well written and give us a direct view into the feelings, pain, confusion and suffering of these teenage boys. Unlike Roxie and Velma, the two main characters in Kander and Ebb's other show that focuses on crime trials in the early part of the 1900s, Chicago, these nine boys didn't seek the spotlight. So having them sing and dance out their feelings in "razzle dazzle" numbers, while entertaining, seems slightly strange. Fortunately, the ballads in the show are superb and work well to flesh out their suffering.

Since this isn't a feel good musical, the discomfort that many of the moments in the show bring does make the audience squirm appropriately. There is a highly energetic dance number centered around the use of the electric chair and a chilling use of black face which amount to both highly theatrical and highly shocking moments, which, I believe, is exactly what the creators had in mind.

While the show clearly presents shocking moments and imagery from the minstrel shows, like having the cast perform the "cake walk" and other condescending dances, there is still a bit of a disconnect between the 80-year-old story and the truly unfortunate predicament these boys suffered through and how we are supposed to process what we are witnessing. To truly become a shocking musical that makes everyone realize the importance and relevance of these individuals, we should feel guilty while we are laughing at what we are seeing, catching ourselves for finding humor in the racism that prevailed throughout the minstrel shows. But the minstrel jokes are so tired that you groan instead of laugh. On top of the minstrel theme there is also an odd framework that focuses on a quiet black woman waiting for a bus that, while we clearly understand by the end of the show who this woman is, doesn't quite relate to the show unless you do an internet search to help you connect the dots.

Susan Stroman's sensational original Tony-nominated direction and choreography are recreated by Jeff Whiting, who was the associate director for the New York production. The energetic dances and skillful direction play out on Douglas Clarke's simple yet elegant set with just the use of numerous chairs and some planks to portray the many locations of the story. Music director Jeff Kennedy does exceptional work, both with the rich vocals from the cast and the sensational sound achieved from the eight-piece band.

The cast is incredibly gifted and form a superb ensemble with each actor playing various roles and getting many moments to shine. As Haywood, the young man the show focuses most of its attention on, Nathan Andrew Riley provides a passionate vigor and refined sense of humanity, even during the unfortunate incarceration when it seems all hope is lost. The split second transformation of Rashad Naylor and Christopher Patterson into the boys' two accusers, Victoria and Ruby, is breathtaking, with these two talented actors delivering excellent caricatures. As the two comics in the show, Walter Belcher and Trent Armand Kendall provide moments of levity and Belcher presents a sincere portrayal of the boys' lawyer. John Batchan is superb as Eugene, the youngest boy who doesn't even know what he's been accused of, and Michael Thompson is charming as one of the boys who teaches Haywood how to read. Mike Lawler is appropriately condescending as a character called the Interlocutor, the master of ceremonies of the show and the only white actor in the cast.

Seeing injustice laid out directly in front of you is difficult (even in a musical) and knowing that there is still suffering and hardships like this happening today makes the musical poignant—the entire "black lives matters" movement which happened after this show premiered on Broadway proves that the show still resonates. The Scottsboro Boys is one of those musicals that has many things that work for it and make it a rich, emotional journey about a true story that cries out for justice, but there is just one small piece missing that would turn it into a truly brilliant work of art and make every audience member have a deep connection to the harsh reality of these nine boys' experience. At the end of the show the boys' attorney tells Haywood that he should write down his thoughts and experiences. Haywood says to him, "Who's gonna learn from it?" It is clear that we all still have much to learn from the experience of these nine boys whose lives were all destroyed by a single lie.

Phoenix Theatre's production of The Scottsboro Boys runs through April 30th, 2017, with performances at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling 602-254-2151.

Director/Choreographer: Jeff Whiting
Music Director: Jeff Kennedy
Scenic Designer: Douglas Clarke
Costume Designer: Adriana Diaz
Lighting Designer: Michael J. Eddy
Sound Designer: Dave Temby
Properties Designer: Tyler Welden

Cast:
Olen: Wesley Barnes
Eugene: John Batchan
Mr. Tambo/Samuel Leobowitz: Walter Belcher
Willie: Steven Charles
Clarence: Miguel Jackson
Mr. Bones/Attorney General: Trent Armand Kendall*
Interlocutor: Mike Lawler*
Charlie/Victoria: Rashad Naylor*
Ozie/Ruby: Christopher Patterson
Haywood: Nathan Andrew Riley*
Andy: Trequon Tate
Roy: Michael Thompson
Lady: Sasha Wordlaw *Members of Actors' Equity Association


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