Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Review: The Scottsboro Boys

The Scottsboro Boys is the new musical from John Kander and the late Fred Ebb (the team thats brought broadway Chicago, Cabaret and Kiss of the Spider Woman) it had a sold out run at the Vineyard Theater off Broadway this past spring, and has made its way onto Broadway to the Lyceum Theater. Although it does not officially open until October 31st its currently in preview performances, one of which I was lucky enough to catch this past weekend.

The Scottsboro Boys is performed as one act with no intermission running a hour and 45 minutes. The show deals with the famous Scottsboro case of the 1930s, in which a group of young African American teenagers were accused of raping two white women on a freight train to Memphis, Tennessee. Their attempts to prove their innocence and their treatment by the justice system, which provoked a national outrage, sparked the American Civil Rights movement. But what sets this show apart from just being a typical musical is the way its told. In a controversial choice the show is performed as a Minstrel Show. For those who are not aware of what a Minstrel Show is, it was a type of performance in the 1800's in which white actors would wear black face and portray African Americans as stereotypes and caricatures. However while The Scottsboro Boys retains the style of a Minstrel show they flip the convention on its head by having an all African American cast and only one white actor on stage, where the remainder of the cast play the nine boys, Colman Domingo as Mr. Bones & Forrest McClendon as Mr. Tambo play white men, white woman and white lawyers in a stereotypical fashion, the stereotypical portrayal of African Americans also sometimes pokes through during performances from the nine actors playing the boys, and the black face also remains at a certain point. The show is extremely offensive and shocking but uses the style to be extremely effective in its story telling, its also a funny show at points but you might also be second guessing what you should be laughing at.

I found the show interesting because Kander and Ebb have decided from a different angle to revisit the American legal system as well as themes of justice and innocence as well as the media, which they previously explored in the musical Chicago. Although the shows are extremely different in production style theater goers will pick up on some of the slight musical similarities between both shows.

The set design is minimal for a good part of the show, mostly using a set of metal chairs to portray a jail cell, a freight train carriage and a bus among other things. There are however moments of more lavish set pieces but they are not as widely seen through out the show.

As for performances the stand out has to be Joshua Henry (previously seen on Broadway as Favorite Son in the musical American Idiot) as Haywood Patterson who takes to being the leader of the group of boys, although he is big and mean looking Henry manages to make you feel for this character and root for him til the very end. The other standout has to be Jeremy Gumbs as twelve year old Eugene Williams, the youngest of the boys. Considering the material of the show Jeremy brings an impressive performance that at times is truly heart breaking. Also of note is Sharon Washington as The Lady, a character whose purpose is not revealed until literally the end of the show in one of the pieces most shocking twist (my lips are sealed you will just have to see for yourselves), but in general everyone is fantastic in their roles.

This show should be in my opinion considered a front runner for a 2011 best musical Tony nomination. Great story, score, set and top that off with whats turning out to be a fantastic ad campaign this is going to definitely be one of the shows to beat.

Tickets and more information on the show can be found at

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