Let’s just say for arguments sake that a new musical based on the factual story of the “Scottsboro Case” – where a group of nine colored men, ages 13-19, were falsely accused of raping two white women of ill repute in Alabama circa 1931 and were incarcerated, put to trial, found guilty, had their lives ruined – even after multiple trials to attempt to clear them – opens at the Vineyard Theatre – written by John Kander and Fred Ebb. A new team. Not the famous Kander and Ebb with an incredible Broadway musical comedy hit track record that includes Cabaret, Chicago and Curtains. But a brand new collaboration called Kander and Ebb. Would “The Scottsboro Boys” be thought of in quite the same way?
Who knows? It’s just that this production directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman left me less than enthusiastic; trying to understand why I responded the way I did. The concept is exciting, daring and intriguing. Telling the story within the framework of a minstrel show, where the African-American actors portray white people and don black face to enact the racist and demeaning story of these human beings as an in-your-face-aren’t-you-ashamed-of-being-entertained-in-this-manner-musical.
And entertained we are. The cast of men are exceptional actors, singers and dancers. There is a rousing opening number, some ragtime and a cakewalk, a Johnny Mercer inspired “Commencing in Chattanooga”, the familiar Kander vamp and an incredible tap routine that includes the electric chair. But there are high points and flat points. Points that don’t totally connect.
The score serves the serviceable book by David Thompson but never takes hold on its own. So I think that if this were Kander and Ebb’s first time at bat we would be disappointed. And since this is probably the final show of a fantastic collaboration we are doubly disappointed even though I thought “Go Back Home” and “Southern Days” beautiful, if not immediately songs to remember.
Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson, who becomes the main character is outstanding – riveting and very sympathetic as he insists on telling the truth, refusing to equivocate to gain his freedom and writing it all down for future generations to know what actually transpired.
A robust John Cullum is the Interlocutor or Master of Ceremonies in this Minstrel Show where Coleman Domingo (Mr. Bones) and Forrest McClendon (Mr. Tambo) play a variety of white folk – never missing a leer or a laugh. Mr. McClendon also portrays a carpetbag lawyer from up North, Samuel Leibowitz, who tries to save the day without caring for his clients in his scathing number “That’s Not The Way We Do Things”.
As the two white women wronged, Christian Dante White and Sean Bradford are totally believable with only hats and sweaters to delineate the fairer sex when not being part of the jailed nine men.
Special mention must be made of Sharon Washington, the only female cast member who plays A Lady, a symbolic part of an observer. She has an incredibly strong, silent presence throughout the show which culminates in an unforgettable ending. Despite my reservations “The Scottsboro Boys” is certainly worth seeing.
www.vineyardtheatre.org Photo: Richard Termine