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The Scottsboro Boys

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Cast
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The peculiar mathematics of theatre is that one plus one plus one does not always equal three. You can have first-rank writers working at top form, the director and choreographer providing some of her best staging of the decade, and a marvelous cast and still come up with a show that only intermittently soars. Such is the case of The Scottsboro Boys, the last (maybe?) John Kander–Fred Ebb musical, which just opened in a largely flawless production at the Vineyard Theatre that only highlights the few but considerable imperfections in the writing.

None of this should come as a complete surprise. Though composer Kander and lyricist Ebb staked their places in musical theatre history with Cabaret and Chicago, which explored in semi-experimental form the tenuous relationship between life and entertainment, much of their output were smaller, more middling efforts that offered oases of pure musical bliss amid more parched real estate. Since Ebb's death in 2004, the duo's various unproduced or unfinished shows have been appearing regularly, whether on Broadway (Curtains), in Arlington, Virginia (The Visit), or Westport, Connecticut (All About Us), but have not exactly proven buried treasures.

Judging strictly by its first five minutes, The Scottsboro Boys would seem to not just buck this trend, but explode it with dynamite. In an opening number as viscerally jolting as any Broadway has produced in years, 12 cast members burst onstage as the hoofing troupe who are about to enact the strange-but-true tale of the nine young black men of the title. Though none was older than 18, all in 1931 Alabama were falsely accused of raping two white women and spent literally the remainder of their lives trying to live down the charge and the attached public scorn.

They're not just metaphoric minstrels, but real ones - complete with end men Tambo and Bones (Forrest McClendon and Colman Domingo) spouting eye-rolling jokes punctuated by impeccably timed tambourine hits. The presiding interlocutor (John Cullum) promises "a night of merriment / Of laughter, songs and jokes"... in which racism and death are the lead characters? And throughout the frantic tapping and leaping of that number, titled "Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!", it seems that Kander, Ebb, bookwriter David Thompson, and director-choreographer Susan Stroman have found a way to make that impossible balance plausible.

As the story of the men, and particularly of their unofficial ringleader Haywood Patterson (Brandon Victor Dixon), unfolds, it often seems that the concept has been explored to its fullest extent. Tambo and Bones broadly play a swath of questionable authority figures, almost invariably white, in a series of glimmering caricatures. An accused Haywood defends himself in full-on Bert Williams mode in the sad-clown strut "Nothin'." And things take pleasingly surreal turns as the men's New York Jewish lawyer (McClendon) arrives to get them off the hook and only impales them further on the spine of public opinion.

The discomforting interplay between the men's tale and the antiquated method of its presentation is pure Kander and Ebb. It's a milieu the duo have always inhabited like no one else, and it's highly appropriate for these people that represented one of the last large-scale gasps of old-school American racism in the years before Civil Rights finally and inexorably turned the tide.

But unlike Cabaret's Weimar variety hour and Chicago's makeshift vaudeville, the conceptual format here can't authoritatively comment contemporaneously on events. Minstrel shows had all but disintegrated by 1931, and those that hung on were so perpendicular to the culture that they can't really represent the larger American indifference the play attempts to tackle, and this disingenuousness is hard to overcome. (Alan Jay Lerner and Kurt Weill's Love Life, commonly seen as the first real concept musical, also climaxed with a minstrel show, but its characters lived through the form's heyday, thus better justifying the conceit's use.)

Worse, because the minstrel show structure itself promotes staid staging (with the performers, seated in a semicircle watching the "scenes" unfold downstage), Stroman must abandon it almost entirely after the opening just so the show can move. That's a sensible, even necessary choice, but by violating the form's most visible aesthetic, the creators signal that it's ultimately little more than a one-way gimmick - a far cry from Cabaret and Chicago's ignition-to-conflagration resoluteness.

The Scottsboro Boys can never entirely overcome this institutional dishonesty, and its attempts to counterbalance it with a silent woman (Sharon Washington) who absorbs the spectacle around her in anticipation of brighter days (and a bigger payoff) ahead, is strictly amateur-hour stuff. The very best Kander and Ebb shows have never needed to explicitly explain their messages; what Thompson forces upon you here is more chilling as a reminder of what you're not getting.

Kander and Ebb's score, however, is a dream, with even minor ditties (the train song "Commencing in Chattanooga, Haywood's imploring "Make Friends with the Truth," the twisted anthem "Southern Days") insinuatingly melodic, and the darker pieces (many of them sung by the put-upon but determined Haywood) as cautiously creeping as the situations demand. Unlike the much shakier scores for The Visit and All About Us, this is first-rate (okay, entry-level first-rate) Kander and Ebb: weird, wacky, and wonderful in roughly equal measure.

It also inspires Stroman to some of her best-ever creations. If last season's Happiness (at Lincoln Center) was her Off-Broadway breakthrough, this is her apotheosis: energetically of the period as well as firmly "now," unquenchably theatrical, and almost devoid of the signature "tricks" that sank her last Broadway effort, Young Frankenstein. Her sharp and sunny staging and dances could use a more compelling backdrop than Beowulf Boritt's conspicuously bare set - there are a scrim and olio, but mostly the minstrel chairs are reconfigured endlessly (and often pointlessly) a la Grand Hotel - but Toni-Leslie James's rag-tag costumes and Kevin Adams's lights are spot on.

Rodney Hicks, John Cullum, and Brandon Victor Dixon.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

So are the performances, with Dixon particularly magnetic as the heavy-minded Haywood, Domingo and McClendon precisely pitched as the overblown comics, and Cullum a gentle force as the deceptively dictatorial interlocutor. Of the other boys, Cody Ryan Wise brings a youthful vigor to the tap-inclined Eugene, and Christian Dante White and Sean Bradford do some keen doubling as the accusing women. Josh Breckenridge, Kendrick Jones, Julius Thomas III, Rodney Hicks, and Derrick Cobey nicely fill out the remainder, but make smaller impressions because of their smaller roles in the action.

Not that that type of equality is really the point - the men function seamlessly as a unit, their numbers together intentionally the show's centerpieces. But to better highlight the dehumanizing dangers of American minstrelsy as it moved from quaint stages to mainstream minds to utter obliteration, having nine fully recognizable and individuals would be a welcome touch. It may violate the prevailing anonymity of the minstrel show framework, but so what? It's already far from pure.

The best argument against it would be that it would further dilute a show that, despite isolated instances of transcendence, is already struggling to find its truest center. Whether it can in a post-Ebb world is a question too depressing to deal with here. But if any show deserves to overcome its own trepidations to become one last grand success for a celebrated songwriting team, it's The Scottsboro Boys. Uneven it may be, unworthy it most assuredly is not.

The Scottsboro Boys
Through April 18
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15 Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: