|Richard Hubert Smith|
The long escalators in the London Underground are lined with framed theatrical window cards, giving us something to browse at as we traverse the tubes. Along with the shows I was booked to see, the shows that I'd seen on previous trips, and the shows that I really don't ever need to see, I was surprised to find The Scottsboro Boys opening at the Young Vic during my brief visit.
The final completed Kander and Ebb musical to reach Broadway thus far was acclaimed when it opened at the Vineyard Theatre in March 2010. It was lavished with even more praise when it transferred to the Lyceum that Halloween. Based on the true story of nine innocent black men in 1931 Alabama who were railroaded to a conviction for the purported rape of two white women, the show — told in a minstrel show/vaudeville style — proved a difficult sell to entertainment-seeking audiences, even when the critics extolled its excellence. This reticence was only strengthened by some unfortunate and unwarranted picketing, and The Scottsboro Boys couldn't make it to Christmas. (The show earned an impressive twelve posthumous Tony nominations, although the awards were swept by The Book of Mormon.)
There has been an afterlife, with successful regional visits to Philadelphia, San Diego and San Francisco. And now, suddenly, The Scottsboro Boys is in London.
And what a Scottsboro Boys it is! This is a close recreation of the original production, with about a quarter of the original cast. Here, once again, is Susan Stroman's dynamically inventive staging and choreography, on a spare stage framed by three arches (two of them askew) and populated by a mere twelve chairs plus a few wooden planks. Given that the Off-Broadway sized Young Vic is configured like the Vineyard, with a dozen or so rows of seats on steep risers, the show looks and plays like it did originally.
Stroman, who is giving us two Broadway musicals this season — the already arrived Big Fish and the upcoming Bullets over Broadway — has long been noted for her extravagant, prop-filled production numbers. Working here with nothing but imagination and those few chairs, she demonstrates just how strong her basic ideas can be. Together with Kander and the late Ebb (who died in 2004), she has assembled an evening that shocks us and assaults us, stepping far past the bounds of taste — especially in the electric chair tap dance and a blatantly anti-Semitic sequence — but always with purpose. Stroman has delved into bad taste before, notably with Mel Brooks on The Producers. But there it was all in fun; in The Scottsboro Boys, the truths behind the edgy musical numbers are no fooling matter and doubly effective.
The proceedings are enhanced by the presence of Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon. The pair — as the minstrels Bones and Tambo, and who in those guises play myriad other characters — seemed valued members of the ensemble at the Vineyard and expert featured players at the Lyceum. In London, they carry The Scottsboro Boys like stars. I can't really say that they are better now than before; they were always exceptional. Their performances here are altogether searing, especially in the second trial sequence with Domingo as the District Attorney and McClendon as New York attorney Samuel Leibowitz.
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