Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Scottsboro Boys (The SOB Review)

The Scottsboro Boys (The SOB Review) - McGuire Proscenium Stage, Guthrie, Minneapolis, Minnesota

***1/2 (out of ****)

Last evening, The Scottsboro Boys' pre-Broadway trial run at Minneapolis' Guthrie opened, and I was there to witness it.

With no defense necessary, my verdict was easily reached. The Scottsboro Boys is sensational in virtually every way.

What makes this Susan Stroman-helmed tuner particularly noteworthy is its very production marks the final yet ultimately sanguine collaboration between one of the most durable duos in musical theatre history: John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, who passed away nearly six years ago. Through the culmination of The Scottsboro Boys, Kander and Ebb's prolific, unmistakable scores now stretch nearly 50 years.

Their magnificent musical is based on an actual cause célèbre surrounding the outrageous injustices endured by nine African-Americans, who were falsely accused of gang-raping two white women in a deeply prejudiced Alabama during the Great Depression. As guilty verdict after guilty verdict was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court, the nine remained behind bars for years continuing to profess their innocence.

Proving once and for all that fact is far stranger and usually much more compelling than fiction, librettist David Thompson wisely hews his book quite close to what actually transpired, giving a plausible air of verisimilitude to the story. The liberties he does take serve to move the story along.

Additionally, Thompson -- along with Kander and Ebb's ingeniously sly score -- beats those lingering racist underpinnings left within our society at its own game by cleverly employing minstrel show devices to frame the story. In the hands of any less skilled director than Stroman, the effect could easily fall flat.

Stroman exceptionally executes this production frequently employing her creative choreography to brilliantly underscore the proceedings. Witness how she's creatively conceived "Electric Chair," using jolting humor to make a point. To say the least, it's one of many electrifying passages in the show's progression.

The thoroughly excellent cast prosecutes their roles with a spine-tingling sense of mischievous daring and danger. Without exception, they are in a word superb.

In an ironic about-face, the equally phenomenal Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon each effectively put on a white face to portray a dizzying array of characters ranging from sheriff and deputy to lawyers and guards. As the lone white actor in the production, a fine David Anthony Brinkley presides as the Interlocutor, as well as judge and Alabama governor (Brinkley will be replaced on Broadway by John Collum, who originated those roles earlier this year at New York's Vineyard Theatre).

Each of the nine Scottsboro Boys is expertly prosecuted by Sean Bradford as Ozie Powell, Josh Breckenridge as Olen Montgomery, Derrick Cobey as Andy Wright, Jeremy Gumbs as Eugene Williams, Joshua Henry as Haywood Patterson, Rodney Hicks as Clarence Norris, Kendrick Jones as Willie Roberson, Julius Thomas III as Roy Wright, and Christian Dante White as Charles Weems. All have individual personality to spare -- and in the case of Bradford and White, quite literally, as they portray accusors Ruby and Victoria with aplomb.

When the nine first bound onto the stage in saltation through the rousing "Minstrel March" (which seamlessly segues into the devilishly deceptive "Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!"), they're imbuing their characters with all the dashed hopes and dreams they describe shortly after in the gorgeous, Gospel-tinged "Commencing In Chattanooga." But from their crowded cell, when Thompson's libretto astutely gives way to the stark reality inherent in Alabama's rat-infested jails and prisons, each actor comes into his own.

Ultimately it's Joshua Henry's extraordinary turn as the illiterate, truth-telling Haywood Patterson that thrills. Henry astonishes in the minstrelsy "Nothin'" as he flawlessly maneuvers back and forth between a genuinely-delivered sulking, seething animosity toward being unjustly accused and a crafty caricature of the shameful blackface personna that's long since been discredited. His soaring, yet heartbreaking "You Can't Do Me" vanquishes over adversity, even if he's left to rot in jail.

Adroitly and satisfyingly concluding with a poignant depiction of a much more prominent historical event, nimbly offered by Sharon Washington as The Lady, the overall result is spellbinding.

I can testify that as gutwrenching, outrageous and absolutely beautiful as this musical is, The Scottsboro Boys is nothing short of an ironic triumph over evil. It will surely become a must-see on Broadway, and to that I'll confidently swear.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

In keeping with the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations that unfairly discriminate against bloggers, who are now required by law to disclose when they have received anything of value they might write about, please note that I have received nothing of value in exchange for this post.

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At 07 August, 2010, Blogger Unemployment Blues said...

Steve, I am so glad to see you liked the show. I am anxious to see it become the next CABARET, another of Kander and Ebb's socially minded masterpieces, and enjoy a long run. Hope enough people give it the chance it deserves.

At 09 August, 2010, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

I hope a certain New York critic changes his mind about the production.

At 03 October, 2010, Anonymous Jessica said...

I live in Minneapolis and saw the show five times at the Guthrie. It is a perfect example of the responsibility theatre, and all art, has to society: to give us what we want to see, but also, and perhaps more importantly, what we NEED to see.

The best part of this show happens when people leave the theatre and spend time learning more about this injustice. This is the most important piece of theatre I have ever seen, and I know that I am a better person because of it.

It's just more proof that a certain New York critic doesn't get it.


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