Broadway Favorites in England: The Scottsboro Boys Revivified and a Modern-Dress Sweeney Todd

By Steven Suskin
10 Nov 2013

Kyle Scatiffe
Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Julian Glover, a 78-year-old Olivier Award winner whose roles range from King Lear to James Bond villains, makes a dandy Interlocutor, with Dawn Hope tugging at our collective consciousness as The Lady who looks on. Also prime assets are original cast members Christian-Dante White and James H. Lane, as two of the boys who double as the "white trash" accusers Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. The heart of the show, though, comes from newcomer Kyle Scatiffe as Haywood Patterson. His delivery of "Go Back Home" — one of Kander and Ebb's most effective songs — rivets the attention and propels the show.

I was equally moved by The Scottsboro Boys on 15th Street and 45th Street in New York. Sitting with the stunned audience during the curtain calls at the Young Vic, I wondered whether this London production carried even more of an impact. The show is scheduled for a limited run through Dec. 21, and it seems an obvious candidate for a West End transfer. Will the show finally, in London, achieve the wider success it so deeply deserves? The racial politics of The Scottsboro Boys were too provocative for the current-day mass American audience, it seems. The British, being further away from the American South, but having their own set of racial issues, just might be ready to embrace this masterwork of Kander, Ebb and Stroman. 

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And then it was north to Manchester. What better Broadway musical to see in this cradle of the Industrial Revolution than Sweeney Todd — in the Royal Exchange Building, which dates from 1874? This is now home to the Royal Exchange Theatre, a fascinatingly-designed seven-sided 700-seat theatre-in-the-round. A modern-dress Sweeney in the round, with no scenery? Sounds questionable, no? It turns out that the show works exceptionally well.

This is a coproduction with the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, the first collaboration between the two sometimes competitors. Yorkshire is an amphitheatre, not unlike the Beaumont, which means that the staging by Yorkshire artistic director James Brining and the design by Colin Richmond is quite different for Manchester. Thus, you get Sweeney without walls, and with nobody seated more than seven rows back. There are also two upper rings with two rows each, with space carved out for the seven-piece orchestra.

While we tend to favor traditional productions of Sweeney, something unexpected unfolds almost immediately. The come-in displays seven actors in near catatonic states; one of them makes origami finches, another — who looks like a third-rate Italian lounge singer — is glued to the telly, which is playing a vintage recording of Bacharach and David's "Close to You." This is Fogg's Asylum, it turns out. An officious looking bloke/Beadle walks over to the asylum's spinet organ and plays Sweeney's opening blast, battling Bacharach, while the ensemble disperse from their positions for a haunting "Ballad of Sweeney Todd."

 Continued...