Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Review of "The Scottsboro Boys"

One of the most abhorrent episodes of injustice during the 20th century was the arrest, subsequent trials, and imprisonment of nine black youths, falsely accused of raping two white women in 1930’s Alabama. Their story is the basis for the musical, The Scottsboro Boys, playing at Playhouse on Park through August 4th. 

The cast of "The Scottsboro Boys."  Photo:  Meredith Longo
The production employs the construct of the minstrel show as a method to tell this contemptible story. When the show was set to open on Broadway in 2011, much was written about the controversial use of the minstrel show in the production. Minstrel shows, a mainstay of popular entertainment in the latter half of the 19th century as well as the early part of the 20th century, promoted racial stereotypes of African-Americans and is now seen as an offensive and repugnant art form. However, by utilizing such a highly charged and contentious vehicle to relate this woeful tale the creators of the musical--the composing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, along with librettist David Thompson—have been able to focus a searing spotlight on this tragic episode of racial injustice that helped to spark the civil rights movement in the United States.

The staging by Director Sean Harris is simple, yet powerful with just a few chairs and some wooden planks for sets. This allows the plot to unfold without any unnecessary distractions.  The Scottsboro Boys is entertaining, with pulsating choreography by Darlene Zoller that conveys the urgency and tension the nine youths are experiencing.  The show, however, is also troubling as audiences are confronted with such blatant disregard for humanity based on one’s skin color.  Yet while this incident happened over 80 years ago, examples of outrage and racism at this level still permeate society today.  Just watch the harrowing events in the current Netflix documentary on the Central Park Five.

Torrey Linder as Mr. Tambo and the cast of "The Scottsboro Boys."  Photo:  Meredith Longo
The storyline follows the nine young men and boys as they are wrongly implicated, convicted and imprisoned.  Their so-called trial and verdict is an affront to the legal system, but the impending death sentences are overturned, which leads to numerous retrials, representation by a high-profile New York lawyer and even the recanting of the original charges by one of the victims.  Still, the nine remain jailed and, in the end, tragedy befalls each of them.

The songs are a mixture of haunting ballads with rousing ensemble numbers.  The score is one of the last for the long-time team of John Kander and Freb Ebb and reveals them at the top of their game.  As they have demonstrated in such musicals as Cabaret and Chicago, they are unafraid to tackle provocative topics.

Ivory McKay as Mr. Bones, left, and Torrey Linder as Mr. Tambo, right from "The Scottsboro Boys."                     Photo:  Meredith Longo
The cast is a mix of professional and non-union actors.  In most Playhouse of Park productions over the years, this blending of performers has not affected the thrust of the show.  However, in The Scottsboro Boys, the separation of talent is more noticeable, which lessens the dramatic impact of the musical at critical points.  For a small theater company the expenses for mounting this type of production are considerable.  However, the caliber of the show would have been elevated with a more seasoned cast.  With that said, Ivory McKay, who plays many roles, but mainly the minstrel show stalwart Mr. Bones, is superb.  His partner, Mr. Tambo, played by Torrey Linder, is up to the task of matching McKay’s cynicism and spot on portrayals.  Their roles serve to both accentuate and mock the miscarriage of justice.  Troy Valjean Rucker gives a powerful and moving performance as the principled Haywood Patterson.  As the Interlocutor, Dennis Holland is detached and properly condescending as the Master of Ceremonies.

Director Harris does an admirable job trying to mold the group of actors into a well-tuned ensemble.  He skillfully works through great moments of joy and sadness that keeps the audience on a rollercoaster of emotions.  The insertion of a mysterious lady throughout the production (her identity is revealed at the end of the show) is somewhat overplayed, which sometimes takes away the central focus of the show.

The Scottsboro Boys will challenge you and make you uncomfortable at times, but its message and inspired presentation make it a worthwhile and rewarding theatrical event. Kudos to Playhouse on Park.

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