REVIEW: Director Susan Stroman finds the perfect sensibility for this Broadway-bound musical that traces the 1930s story of nine black teenagers falsely accused of rape.
The cast of The Scottsboro Boys, music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, book by David Thompson. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, with set design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Toni-Leslie James and lighting design by Ken Billington. On the McGuire Proscenium Stage of the Guthrie Theater from July 31 through September 25, 2010. Photo credit: Paul Kolnik.
The dilemma confronting "The Scottsboro Boys" is whether a minstrel show built on winks and smiles can honor the integrity of nine men whose freedom was burned up in America's racial distemper. Without that essential humanity, this astonishing musical accomplishment might have echoed as a dissonant scold -- obvious in its bald lessons, hollow in resolution.
So it is something of a signal achievement that Susan Stroman's staging of this musical by Kander and Ebb ("Chicago," "Cabaret"), which opened Friday at the Guthrie Theater and will transfer to Broadway in October, never loses sight of its aspirations to nobility.
The play's turnaway success last winter at a small off-Broadway house enticed producers Fran and Barry Weissler to come here for some retooling before heading into Broadway. Barry Weissler looked a bit irked to see some empty seats as he scanned the house Friday. As Stroman's production unfolded, however, he and his party seemed pleased with the results. Beowulf Boritt's spare design -- the actors construct settings from metal chairs -- allows Ken Billington's lights to put this piece in a neutral, Brechtian space. David Thompson's book, with a few massages, dots the important moments in a saga that riveted America in the 1930s as nine teenage blacks accused of raping two white women were repeatedly tried and convicted, despite their innocence. The last man was freed after 19 years in jail.
The piece is presented as a minstrel show -- a freighted convention intrinsically fit to comment on the cruel whim of racism. Smiles are jagged with irony; winks taunt more than amuse.
David Anthony Brinkley is the show's Interlocutor, whose Southern charm masks a plantation mentality. Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon) -- stock players in minstrelsy -- do the heavy lifting of portraying white sheriffs, decrepit prosecutors and self-righteous lawyers. Tambo's "That's Not the Way We Do Things" wickedly satirizes Northern liberal guilt and Domingo counters with the savagely blunt "Financial Advice," warning a recanting accuser to beware of her benefactors. The ensemble "Electric Chair" uses frenetic tap dancing to catalyze the panic of electrocution into a bizarre horror.
Character development among the nine accused remains slim, a reasonable state in what is after all a pageant. Joshua Henry, however, ignites the role of Haywood Patterson as the lightning rod for our identification with the men. The singing and dancing, it must be said, are first rate.
Stroman's point of view walks a tight wire all night -- disturbing with its biting wit and entertaining in showmanship. She demands a psychic response as we contemplate a brilliant invocation of a terribly sad story that nonetheless joyously commemorates nine fellow Americans.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299