Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 31, 2010
The Scottsboro Boys Music and lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb. Book by David Thompson. Direction and choreography by Susan Stroman. Music direction and vocal arrangements by David Loud. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design by Ken Billington. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Orchestrations by Larry Hochman. Fight direction by Rick Sordelet. Cast: Joshua Henry, Colman Domingo, Forrest McClendon, Sharon Washington, Josh Breckenridge, Derrick Cobey, E. Clayton Cornelious, Jeremy Gumbs, Rodney Hicks Kendrick Jones, James T. Lane, JC Montgomery, Clinton Roane, Cherene Snow, Julius Thomas III, Christian Dante White, and John Cullum.
John Kander and Fred Ebb (music and lyrics), David Thompson (book), and Susan Stroman (direction and choreography) have unleashed with this musical an out-of-control theatrical see-saw that repeatedly thrusts you between electrified joy and utter apathy. Every moment of sheer genius — and in the score, there are many — is met with an equal instance of what-were-they-thinking disappointment. The result is a show that annoys just as often as it excites, giving you hope for a too-often moribund art form one minute and snatching it away the next with a sneering smile as if to insist, “No, they really don’t make shows anymore like the one this one is trying to be.”
Whether referring to the community of musical theatre writers at large or Kander and Ebb in particular, they certainly don’t. The Scottsboro Boys pays loving heed to the composing duo’s luminous previous collaborations by examining its theme through a conceptual lens that shines a variety of colors on something that at first looks pitch black. Here, that concept is a minstrel show, complete with an omniscient Interlocutor (John Cullum), do-everything end men Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones (Forrest McClendon and Colman Domingo), and as the in-between performers the men who are destined to fight for both their freedom and America’s in the bigoted South’s often disapproving eye.
To do so would require extraordinary inspiration, which has alas not struck. Stroman is doing some of her best work since The Producers, harnessing every pocket of potential happiness within the boys’ sorrow, and Thompson pushes his structural conceit around every inch of the narrative’s perimeter. But the stage always looks like it needs more, the scenes always sound like they need to say more. Those chairs, deployed frequently but without the wild inventiveness of, say, Grand Hotel, make the action look cheap and underdeveloped. (Toni-Leslie James’s costumes and Ken Billington’s lights, though nothing spectacular, are better fits.) And Thompson’s unwillingness to go all the way with his concept results in incongruities that sink nearly everything that isn’t sung or danced.
This hasn’t always been a problem for Kander and Ebb: Cabaret’s Weimar underworld nightclub, Chicago’s seamy vaudeville, and Kiss of the Spider Woman’s dream pageants were intimately related to those musicals’ stories. Thompson never justifies the minstrel show as the language of the nine defendants; instead, he applies it on top of their story, as if it to make their tragic tale easier to swallow. But when you start to notice that only Tambo and Bones, who play a dizzying variety of mostly white supporting roles ranging from sheriffs to lawyers, are the only ones who really own their minstrel “business,” it’s difficult to buy stock in a concept relying on a presentation scheme most (if not all) of the audience cannot possibly remember as a popular entertainment.
Only in a few cases do the minstrel show and the injustice merge rather than trade blows. The best is a cruelly clever spin on a honeysuckle-scented ballad, “Southern Days,” but songs skewering the boys’ white accusers and their primary lawyer are on the right track. A three-man dance tribute to the electric chair, a shadow-puppet play explaining Haywood’s aversion to lying, and the ebullient “Shout!” (for the first time they’re granted a new trial) are toe-tapping time-wasters; a number of other more straightforward numbers, most for Haywood, all but drown in a seriousness the concept doesn’t easily support.
Cullum leads an exemplary cast, his aromatic malice a fine centerpiece for the action, and a coy counterweight to McClendon’s and Domingo’s broader (but no less effective) ministrations. But because most of the men’s roles are not distinguishable from one another, few make a lasting impression. The two major exceptions are Jeremy Gumbs, who blithely plays the youngest of the boys (and leads that electric chair number), and of course Henry as Haywood. Magnetic though he is, Henry has much more trouble bridging the gaps between rage, terror, and hopefulness than his predecessor did when the show premiered at Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre earlier this year, which establishes a void in the only place in the show allowed to have real feelings at all.
Very little else has changed since the Vineyard run. One minor song has been cut, one minor scene has been completely rewritten (though barely altered at all), and there have been a number of tiny line tweaks. But that’s it. The Vineyard’s production was loaded with promise, displaying an electric foundation for a first-rate evening, albeit one in need of rethinking and rebuilding in a number of key areas. But as a result of an in-between stop at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, things have only gotten weaker: Stripping away Tambo and Bones’s darker-toned connective tissue has robbed the show of most of what bite it had, and separating Haywood even more from the other boys has only exacerbated a central failing.
Yes, the show is more accessible and entertaining now, but that’s not necessarily good for a show that desperately needed to cut deeper and smarter. Sweeping systemic changes are difficult when one of the writers has died, but they were needed more than bush-league nips and tucks. The show’s biggest assets now are its songs, and they’re imposing: Even when they don’t perfectly jibe with the story, they’re tuneful and infectious in the best of newfangled old-fashioned ways. It’s a dream score, even by Kander and Ebb’s own stratospheric standards. But they ultimately only make you realize how much creative artistry is lacking elsewhere, how much the book and staging don’t make antiquated notions feel newly crafted, and the ugly past can teach crucial lessons to a present willing to receive them.