Kander and Ebb have done it again: The Scottsboro Boys resuscitates all that was best about the American minstrel show – arguably the font of all American popular music – while also scathingly annihilating all that was worst about this horribly racist form. They do this by using the minstrel style to tell the story of the notorious 1930s “Scottsboro” case, in which nine African-American men and boys were unjustly accused of raping two white Alabama women.
This juxtaposition does some very provocative things. It renders this rather grim travesty of justice something that we can bear to spend around an hour and a half hearing and learning about. Further, it satirizes minstrelsy’s worst tendencies while also allowing Kander and Ebb to write an energetic, engaging score of minstrel-style songs.
Director and choreographer Susan Stroman is doing some of her best work ever here, using minimal means to create a constantly compelling theatricality. The Scottsboro Boys finds Kander and Ebb combining fetching music with ultra-dark themes, as they’ve done before with Cabaret and Chicago; those were originally directed by Hal Prince and Bob Fosse, respectively, and Stroman’s work here can stand proudly next to those two old masters, no small feat.
Joshua Henry gives a powerful performance as the most vocal “Scottsboro Boy” Haywood Patterson, including his emotional delivery of “Go Back Home”, the score’s standout song. Coleman Domingo of Big Gay Sketch Show fame is fantastic in a collection of smaller roles, as is Forrest McClendon, particularly as the men’s attorney Samuel Leibowitz. Among the uniformly strong ensemble Christian Dante White and James T. Lane stand out, particularly in cannily executed drag turns.
John Cullum hits exactly the right note of condescending, paternalistic “cracker” authority as the show’s only white character, the “Interlocutor”. Sharon Washington is a constant silent presence as “The Lady” – when we find out who she is at the end of the show it is a heart-stopping dramatic moment. However, in what is possibly Stroman’s single misstep, her presence up until this point is often distracting, rather than compellingly mysterious.
With what is shaping up to be a very exciting and competitive season for new musicals, The Scottsboro Boys sets a high bar for both entertainment and artistry. Highly recommended.
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