The Scottsboro Boys
Director Susan Stroman, writer David Thompson, and composers/lyricists John Kander and Fred Ebb have created their own contribution to this conversation. The Scottsboro Boys is making its West Coast premiere in a co-production by San Diego's Old Globe and San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. Despite being deeply flawed, the musical nevertheless puts the equivalence between race and oppression on center stage.
Based on a well-known case of racial injustice in 1930s Alabama, The Scottsboro Boys attempts to replicate Chicago, one of Messrs. Kander and Ebb's most successful musicals. Chicago took the Roaring Twenties' propensity to sensationalize small-time criminal cases and exposed the era's corruption by presenting it as vaudeville. Vaudeville was the leading form of live entertainment in the 1920s, and its straightforward and recognizable form made it easy to appropriate. It didn't hurt that many of the songs used to fill out the vaudeville show were memorable ones: "All That Jazz," "Razzle Dazzle," "Mr. Cellophane," "Cell Block Tango" and "When You're Good to Mama."
For The Scottsboro Boys, the creators looked to the minstrel show, a popular entertainment form that preceded vaudeville. Mostly a nineteenth century phenomenon, minstrel shows began as white performers pretending to be black, and were later taken over by black performers (though, even the black performers wore blackface). Early minstrel shows were elaborate affairs: evenings were divided into major parts with each part containing variations on predictable elements that audiences counted on seeing. By the early 1930s, when the story of The Scottsboro Boys begins, what was left of the minstrel show were the occasional use of blackface (most notably by white actor Al Jolson, in the landmark film The Jazz Singer) and a number of stock characters, many of whom who survived into early forms of entertainment television.
The creators borrowed some of the basic elements of the minstrel form. They use an Interlocutor (Ron Holgate, looking a fair amount like Colonel Sanders) as a go-between for audience and performers; they feature stock characters Mr. Bones (Jared Joseph) and Mr. Tambo (JC Montgomery) performing, especially early on, the kinds of jokes that these two characters would use to warm up audiences (though these jokes seem forced and fell flat at the performance I saw). They also often seat the performers in a semi-circle, as was customary in minstrel shows.
But here the similarities ended, mostly because Mr. Thompson's book couldn't focus on stock characters. Instead, it has to portray nine unique individuals who were unlucky to be caught up in a police raid on a Depression-era commonplace of "riding the rails." Once the stock situations and characters are gone, the minstrel show becomes solely a shell for the storyline. And, while the score is entirely serviceable, it contains no songs I'd call memorable on first hearing.
While these flaws mean that The Scottsboro Boys fails to replicate the success of Chicago, the fault lies neither with the performers, all of whom are uniformly excellent, nor in Ms. Stroman's production. The semi-circle of chairs easily morphs into different settings in Beowulf Boritt's clever scenic design and Ken Billington's multi-faceted lighting plot. And Ms. Stroman's vaunted prowess as a choreographer is on conspicuous display, a real energy driver for a performance that runs ten minutes shy of two hours with no intermission.
Perhaps the most eloquent element of the evening, however, is the nearly silent witness of a character named The Lady (C. Kelly Wright). Seeing all, hearing all, this character takes in oppression after oppression until, with one word, she gives expression to it. And, with that one word, everything changes and the conversation is suddenly on familiar, more comfortable ground.
The Scottsboro Boys may be unnerving but it will give audiences plenty to talk about. The show runs through June 10 on the Old Globe's Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage.
The Old Globe presents in association with American Conservatory Theater, The Scottsboro Boys, Music and Lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Libretto by David Thompson, Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman. Performances through June 10 in in San Diego's Balboa Park at 1363 Old Globe Way. Tickets ($39 - $103) are available by calling the box office at (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623], or by visiting the Old Globe website at www.oldglobe.org.
The cast includes: David Bazemore (Olen Montgomery), Shavey Brown (Willie Roberson), Nile Bullock (Eugene Williams), Christopher James Culberson (Andy Wright), Clifton Duncan (Haywood Patterson), Ron Holgate (The Interlocutor), Eric Jackson (Clarence Norris), Jared Joseph (Mr. Bones), James T. Lane (Ozie Powell), JC Montgomery (Mr. Tambo), Clifton Oliver (Charles Weems), Clinton Roane (Roy Wright) and C. Kelly Wright (The Lady), with Audrey Martells (The Lady Understudy) and Max Kumangai (Swing).
The creative team includes: Eric Ebbenga (Music Direction), Jeff Whiting (Associate Director and Choreographer), Beowulf Boritt (Scenic Design), Toni-Leslie James (Costume Design), Ken Billington (Lighting Design), Jon Weston (Sound Design), Eric Santagata (Assistant Choreographer), Larry Hochman (Orchestrations), Glen Kelly (Music Arrangements), David Loud (Vocal Arrangements), Rick Sordelet (Fight Director), Janet Foster, CSA (Casting) and Joshua Halperin (Stage Manager).
Follow Bill on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SDBillEadie.