Audacity

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Probably one of my leading stereotypically gay traits is that of musical theater queen.  I just love me a rousing, bombastic, glitter-and-spangles-and-feather-boa encased showtune (and I’ve been known to break into one after a couple of sidecars with the gays and the gals).  I’m a big Stephen Sondheim aficionado, but I’m also an equally fervent John Kander and Fred Ebb fan, with their musical theater masterpieces Chicago and Cabaret (just recently in a triumphant spring production I couldn’t stop raving about) near the top of my list of all-time favorite musicals (Sondheim’s Passion and Sweeney Todd occupy the primo spots).  One of my favorite memories of the ‘naughts, for example, is the night I led a drunken, but still definitely on-pitch, sing-along of “Cabaret” at a Montreal karaoke bar (and yes, if I recall, there was a feather boa involved).  I think the Kander and Ebb musical partnership was genius, not just in creating memorable, hummable, yet intricately constructed songs, but also in clearly and vividly telling stories and creating characters in these songs that build the singular power and impact of the overall piece (Chicago’s “When You’re Good to Mama”, for example, in one dazzling swoop, establishes both the gritty, protectionist milieu of a woman’s prison and the tough-as-nails yet pragmatic character of the warden, Mama Morton).  So there was no doubt in my mind that I would catch The Scottsboro Boys, Kander and Ebb’s final collaboration which they were still working on when Ebb passed away in 2004, in its pre-Broadway engagement at Minneapolis’ wonderful Guthrie Theater, after an acclaimed off-Broadway run.  And I am pleased to report that The Scottsboro Boys is audacious and astounding, a musical that is bold, brassy, feet-thumping, as all great musicals are, but also disturbing, uncomfortable, but ultimately inspiring in its powerful closing moments.  Despite some nits, I think it’s a must-see show for lovers, not just of musical theater, but of exceptional theater in general.

The Scottsboro Boys is not your grandmother’s Irving Berlin musical.  It’s based on the true story of nine African-American male teenagers who were falsely accused by two white women of rape while on a train passing through Alabama, and who underwent multiple trials and re-trials and spent decades in prison before being paroled.  It’s a painful scar in the history of race relations in the country.  It’s definitely the last thing you’d expect a musical to be about.  Additionally, Kander and Ebb tells this story using the conventions of minstrelsy, the popular, but polarizing, 19th century performing arts form, which many artists and audiences alike have shunned because it reinforced black stereotypes.   The show is intense and deeply uncomfortable at times, but that’s what great theater is supposed to do.  And the use of the minstrel show elements- blackface, cakewalk, the endmen characters who perform all of the oppressive white roles such as the sheriffs and lawyers- deeply and powerfully drive home the fraught, explosive nature of race relations.  We’ve come a long way, yes, but we need to recall the past to ensure that we move forward in the present.

As you can expect from Kander and Ebb, the songs are beautifully constructed – from the energetic opening number “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!” to the muscularly rhythmic “Commencing in Chattanooga” which mimics the laid-back kineticism of train riding to the inspiring, defiant, 11 o’clock number “You Can’t Do Me”.  Director and choreographer Susan Stroman stages these numbers gracefully and powerfully against the minimalist sets of designer Beowulf Britt and the expressive, expressionistic lighting design of Ken Billington.  But there are also songs that come off jaunty and festive but are also provocative and discomfiting – as an audience member you feel ambivalent, are you supposed to embrace these songs, or be repulsed by them?  For example, there’s the jaw-dropping “Electric Chair” which is a musical number, energetically choreographed by Stroman, about well, getting electrocuted by the electric chair.  Or the toe-tapping charmer “That’s Not The Way We Do Things” sung by the boys’ New York-based lawyer, Samuel Leibovitz, which mercilessly skewers liberal good-doing.  Or the brassy “Financial Advice” sung by the Alabama Attorney-General which talks about “Jew money” in bribing witnesses.  Really?  Wow! But that’s the impressive cojones of Kander and Ebb, and book writer David Thompson:  for this explosive subject matter, there shouldn’t be any tiptoeing around “delicate” audience sensibilities. 

The cast is exceptional, singing, dancing, and acting their hearts out, but special nods to the magnetic Joshua Henry, just off American Idiot on Broadway, as the most well-developed Scottboro Boy character, Haywood Patterson; the outrageous, larger-than-life endmen Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon; and the versatile Sean Bradford who plays both Scottsboro Boy Ozie Powell and one of the female accusers Ruby – his fabulously femme rendition of Ruby’s recantation song “Never Too Late” is one of the highlights of this superlative show.

This isn’t a perfect production.  Only Haywood comes off as a distinctly memorable character among the nine accused teenagers; I wanted more specificity in the characterizations of the other eight Scottsboro Boys.  Also, I thought the whole costuming of the Boys for most of the play in angelic white is a pretty obvious, clichéd reference to their undeniable innocence.  I wanted more show-stopping moments for The Interlocutor, the clueless pseudo-master of ceremonies of the minstrel show, played by David Anthony Brinkley with self-effacement and great humor (and which will be played by John Cullum on Broadway, reprising his Vineyard Theater role). But the inimitable power of this production, which comes to complete clarity in the final scene (a major spoiler I will not talk about), erases any reservations about some of the material or staging.  For those highfalutin theatergoers who still think that musicals are fluffy confections that cannot compete with the thoughtfulness, the intellectual rigor, or the political sophistication of a straight play, buy a ticket to The Scottsboro Boys.  You don’t know what you’re missing.

The Scottsboro Boys will be at the Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, until September 25.  It starts previews on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th Street, on October 7.  Check out the Broadway website for more information.

3 Responses to “Audacity”

  1. Lou Says:

    As a southerner who educated herself online before I saw the play I thought this wonderful, astounding musical to be right on the mark. The story was not allowed in our history books so after my cousin visited the Scottsboro Boys Museum in Scottsboro, Al and told me the sad story of the resistance the city gave gave them I wanted to get educated before I went. it served me well. I learned that as some who saw it were shocked at songs like Jew Money and the electric chair song I knew that Haywood, while he was in one of the prisons, had the job of carrying the body of the latest electrocuted prisoners to be checked out. And that Thomas Knight, a prosecutor in one of the trials, had asked one of the boys if he was being paid with Jew money to have the right answers. They hated Liebowitz because he had called the all white juries “uneducated with brown spit coming out both sides of their mouths” and hate filled.There is a lot online.I think it is riveting so intelligent of Kander and Ebb. I cried and laughed! Can’t wait to see it on Broadway! Do not miss it! The actors are so talented!

  2. francis Says:

    Hi Lou, thanks a lot for sharing!

  3. Pinky Says:

    I missed this at the Vineyard when it played but hopefully I’ll get to see it in NYC. Only read the first few paragraphs of your review because I usually don’t want to know a lot before seeing a show so I’ll be surprised.

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