Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Signature provides audiences with extensive historical perspective of the true 1931 event, including lobby exhibits and a website. The basic outline is that nine African-American boys and young men were arrested on the false charge of raping two white women and sentenced to death. The case became a cause throughout the U.S., with New York lawyer Samuel Leibowitz coming to Scottsboro, Alabama, to defend the "boys" during several retrials.
Kander, still composing at age 91, and his late partner Ebb, who died in 2004, use the obsolete theatrical form of the minstrel show to tell the story (similar to their use of vaudeville in Chicago). On the one hand, the insulting caricatures of African Americansoriginally played by white men in blackface, later by African-American men who darkened their own facesinfluenced attitudes toward the Scottsboro Boys; on the other, this time the men are telling their own story.
Thompson's book introduces the Interlocutor (Christopher Bloch), an outwardly benevolent white man in a white suit and string tie (costumes by Emilio Sosa), and the two "end men" in minstrel parlance, Mr. Bones (Stephen Scott Wormley) and Mr. Tambo (Chaz Alexander Coffin), who play a succession of white authority figures. Coffin shines brightest as Leibowitz, the self-assured Northern lawyer convinced that he can show the Southern authorities that the whole case is based on a lie.
The entire cast (which included swing Scean Aaron on press night) does remarkable work. Lamont Walker II is riveting as Haywood Patterson, the most outspoken of the nine young men, while Malik Akil and DeWitt Fleming Jr. double as the posturing women coerced into their rape accusations.
In one respect, Calarco's staging is better than Susan Stroman's Broadway production. In New York, a character identified only as "The Lady" sits watching the show and only becomes part of the action at the end. Calarco has incorporated Felicia Curry into the performance, both onstage and in theater seats at the front of the auditorium.
Jared Grimes' muscular choreography encompasses both exultation (notably in "Shout!" and "Commencing in Chattanooga") and despair; one elaborate tap routine places dexterity in the context of horror. His work also blends well with Casey Kaleba's fight choreography.
A revolving proscenium arch is the key element of Daniel Conway's scenic design, destroying the barrier between the stage and the audience. Sherrice Mojgani's lighting design and Ryan Hickey's sound design draw the audience into this created world, with ongoing support from seven musicians led from the keyboard by Brian P. Whitted.