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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Young Vic


  Ph: Richard Hubert Smith

How things have changed. Or have they? The last collaboration between composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb (who died in 2004 while working on this show) is an ironic vaudeville, what used to be called "a coon show," in which the black cast adopts stereotyped attitudes and even "white face" while the one white character, an all-purpose emcee and token authority figure played by Julian Glover, is a soft-shoe shuffling repository of racial clichés and affectation.
Inside this "entertainment" framework – which is maintained perhaps a little too strenuously in Susan Stroman’s otherwise blistering and high-energy production – is a serious story of a shocking injustice. Nine black youths were hauled off a Southern freight train in 1931 and accused of raping two white women.
In what comes across as a sort of impromptu kangaroo court in Alabama, all nine were found guilty and eight of them sent to the chair. Despite one of the women withdrawing her false testimony, and the accusations generally considered to be concocted, the case against the boys carried on for a decade of appeals and re-trials, the four youngest freed in 1937 and appearing immediately as a vaudeville act at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.
Hence the show’s governing metaphor, wittily maintained by librettist David Thompson, as a farcical process of ruined lives, grinning desperation and cock-eyed legal casuistry. The show was a flop, closing after 49 performances on Broadway (having started out at the upstate Vineyard Theatre), garnering a dozen Tony nominations but losing out big-time in the awards themselves to The Book of Mormon.
Its reincarnation at the Young Vic is likely to achieve a similar status of respectability without necessarily grabbing wider popular affection. Why? Maybe it tries too hard. Maybe the songs aren’t really all that memorable, and certainly not as good as anything in Cabaret or Chicago, which come to mind in the related social issues of anti-Semitism in the Weimar Republic of the 1930s in the first, and the cartoon courtroom scenes of the second. Maybe it’s all a little bit, well, obvious.
Stroman’s production rattles by in an uninterrupted two hours, its choreographic fizz and rigour starkly complemented by the simplicity of Beowulf Boritt’s design, which literally comprises a few planks and a few chairs. Two planks and a passion was the theatrical recipe for the medieval mystery plays, and that more or less suits the temperature here, threatening to burn the audience to a righteous frazzle.
Five of the Broadway cast members have come to London: Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon as a ferocious, strutting double act of Mr Bones and Mr Tambo, with Christian Dante WhiteJames T Lane and Clinton Roane all showing up well with their British counterparts; and indeed with their fellow American, the unknown Kyle Scatliffe, tall and leonine, who has scored a critical sensation here as Haywood Paterson, the group leader, who jumped prison in 1948 only to be re-arrested on an unrelated charge of manslaughter shortly afterwards.
The exclamatory style of the show is matched in a vivid score of cakewalks, ragtime, blues and even an electric chair song that sizzles a bit (more so, that’s for sure, than the electric chair number in one of the great justly forgotten musicals, The Fields of Ambrosia, “where nobody knows ya”). But there’s none of the astringency or melodious heft and weave of the best Kander and Ebb shows. They’ve supplied a first-class utilitarian songbook that does the job and fuels the anger. And maybe that’s more than enough for most folks, if not for me.


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