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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

The Scottsboro Boys, Bachelorette and The Mousetrap

Philadelphia Theatre Company's The Scottsboro Boys is a major theatrical achievement. Powerful, moving, and filled with memorable songs, John Kander and Fred Ebb's final major musical is a must-see. And it's reached Philadelphia in a production that substantially recreates the Broadway production, but with one important difference: it's being staged in a smaller theatre (PTC's Suzanne Roberts Theatre), which allows the show's intensity to increase exponentially.

The tale is, on its face, an appalling one: the 1931 case of nine black youths who, while travelling through Alabama, were arrested on trumped-up rape charges and ended up spending the rest of their lives fighting for their freedom. But while the boys' story ended tragically, the injustices they suffered inspired the civil rights crusaders of the next generation. David Thompson's book illustrates that subtly, showing a silent woman (Kaci M. Fannin) observing key moments of the boys' case. Her role ends up being more crucial than it seems at first glance.

Thompson, Kander and Ebb tell the boys' story in the form of a minstrel show—but one unlike any performed in the days of Jim Crow. The Scottsboro Boys shows its protagonists suffering at the hands of a racist justice system, but it also shows how popular entertainment so often reinforced racist attitudes while pretending nothing was wrong with them. The boys perform onstage with a white master of ceremonies (Broadway veteran Ron Holgate), a "Southern gentleman" who smiles genially and dances the cakewalk while brusquely ordering the boys around, oblivious to the anguish he causes. When the boys are finally able to defy him, it's the beginning of a major change—not just for the boys, but for America as a whole.

The Scottsboro Boys reinforces the theme Kander and Ebb made in their classic musicals Chicago and Cabaret—that the line between real life and show business is often a thin one. And in setting the boys' story against the backdrop of vaudeville, it provides a potent metaphor for African-American life in the early twentieth century. It's no accident that the troupe's star stooges, Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon) and Mr. Bones (JC Montgomery), appear dressed as clowns when they play the lawyers arguing the boys' case.

The Broadway production drew some criticism for liberties it took with the facts of the case. PTC's production deals with this by including historical articles on the case in the program given to theatergoers. This allows the audience to view the story both in an artistic light and a strictly factual one.

PTC's Scottsboro Boys is basically a recreation of the Broadway production, with Susan Stroman's direction and choreography recreated by Jeff Whiting. In many ways the production works better here; Beowulf Boritt's set design looked too threadbare on Broadway but seems elegant here. And in a smaller space, Stroman's choreography—the best seen on a Philadelphia stage in quite some time—seems even more dazzling. (Eleven-year-old Nile Bullock's tap solo on "Electric Chair" is a wonder to behold.) Several Broadway cast members recreate their roles here, including McClendon and Montgomery (both excellent) and Rodney Hicks, whose renditions of the tender ballad "Go Back Home" and the quietly powerful "Nothin'" are highlights. Kander's melodies are relentlessly catchy, while Ebb's lyrics are full of biting wit and gallows humor. Larry Hochman's (uncredited) period-appropriate arrangements, heavy on banjo, tuba and cornet, are played with spirit by conductor Eric Ebbenga's nine-piece band.

The Scottsboro Boys uses a discredited and nearly forgotten theatrical style that might seem off-putting at first, but don't let that keep you away. By burlesquing and exploding that style, it makes a nearly forgotten case frighteningly real and relevant. It's just one element of what makes The Scottsboro Boys so devastating.

The Scottsboro Boys runs through February 19, 2012, and is presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $51 $69, with discounts for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org, or by visiting the box office.


Bachelorette
Amanda Damron, Julia Frey and Kate Brennan
Photo: Aaron Oster
Leslye Headland's Bachelorette is the hilarious and disturbing story of three young women who go on a booze-and-blow bender the night before a friend's wedding—except that the bride isn't much of a friend. These three hate the bride, actually, mocking her behind her back for being fat and for marrying above her station. But if they hate the bride, they may hate themselves even more. The more they ponder their dead end lives—"I want to date someone who has a job," moans the miserable Katie—the more they make their lives worse with their indulgences. Even when one of the women faces death, and others find their relationship in tatters, they reach for more champagne and more cocaine. "Everything in moderation," says Katie as she snorts another line of coke.

Bachelorette is a dark comedy that's actually really funny. Headland's script drops witticisms casually into a tale of three lives going nowhere. Katie, Gena and Regan have been best friends since college ("We were close, we threw up every meal together," says Gena), but now they spend all their free time getting wasted, barely masking the desperation that nearly suffocates them. Regan (Julia Frey) may look sophisticated, but she's a master manipulator who uses her hospital job as a way to score illegal prescription drugs. And Katie (Kate Brennan) tells raunchy jokes, then makes an offhand reference to the time she attempted suicide.

Bachelorette bears more than a passing resemblance to the hit movie Bridesmaids, both in its premise and its gross-out humor. (To be fair, Headland's play actually came first, opening Off-Broadway two years ago. A movie version of Bachelorette, starring Kirsten Dunst as Regan, is due out later this year.) But Bachelorette has a much harsher tone than Bridesmaids, and that relentless attitude ends up being one of Bachelorette's greatest virtues. There's no happy reconciliation, and no white knight for the heroine to ride off with. The men here are casual hook-ups that the women meet in a bar and drag off to their hotel room for sex; one is a cad (Bob Stineman, smartly sleazy), while the other is a nice guy (an engaging Jeremy Gable) who could probably be Katie's salvation if only she would open her eyes. And the bride (a determined Sarah Schol), an object of derision for the others, ends up being the closest Bachelorette comes to having a completely admirable character.

Director Gregory Scott Campbell nicely balances the serious moments with the comic ones, making the story seem even more genuine. He gets impressive performances from his cast, especially Brennan, who spends much of the play sitting on the floor and staring into space, becoming more forlorn and affecting with every swig she takes from her champagne bottle. Only Amanda Damron, as Gena, fails to make a strong impact, although that's partly because her character is the least well-defined.

Don't wait for the movie on this one. Bachelorette is too good to pass up now.

Bachelorette runs through February 18, 2012, and is presented by Luna Theater Company at The Skybox at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Ticket are $18 $28 and are available by calling 866-811-4111 or online at www.lunatheater.org.


Moustrap
Jennie Eisenhower and Eric Bryant
Photo: Mark Garvin
Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap has been running continuously in London since 1952, and the Walnut Street Theatre's new production shows why. It's no classic, just a formulaic thriller. But it's an entertaining, fast-moving thriller, and the Walnut's crew makes every clue count.

As The Mousetrap opens, newlywed couple Mollie and Giles have just inherited a rambling mansion in the English countryside and converted it to a guest house. At first, the new proprietors' biggest concern is who stays in the Blue Room and who stays in the Rose Room. But soon there are some bigger problems: a snowstorm has left everyone stranded, the telephone line is dead, a murderer is on the loose, and some of those weekend guests seem awfully suspicious. (Come to think of it, so are Mollie and Giles.) A police sergeant braves his way through the snow to investigate, but he's unable to prevent another murder. Will there be still more death before the murderer is caught?

There's not much that's shocking about The Mousetrap—not the murder, not the well-constructed plot developments, not the way the killer is revealed (in a why-didn't-I-think-of-that twist). But director Malcolm Black and his fine cast manage to make their production fun (and occasionally funny) without making it campy. Standouts in the cast include Jennie Eisenhower as the wide-eyed heroine, Judith Knight Young as a judgmental biddy, Eric Bryant as a capricious young guest, and Harry Smith as the policeman who is given to straight-faced pronouncements like "If one of you gets murdered, you'll have yourself to blame." There's a stately set by Glen Sears, and Mary Folino has provided a colorful series of costumes for Bryant.

The Mousetrap is more than a bit corny. But the Walnut's production makes unraveling the mystery quite enjoyable.

The Mousetrap runs through March 4, 2012, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $80, with premium tickets available for $130, and are available by calling the box office at 800-982-2787, or online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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