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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS
at the Young Vic

PLIGHT OF THE ACCUSED
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Ph: Richard Hubert Smith

Composer John Kander and his lyricist, the late Fred Ebb, were nothing if not purveyor’s of good old-fashioned Broadway razzamatazz. And with shows such as Cabaret and Chicago, their two best and best-known hits, they worked with material not usually associated with musical comedy.

As far as subject matter is concerned, their last full-length musical, The Scottsboro Boys – conceived in 2002 and not presented on Broadway until 2010 – was possibly their most daring of all. It dealt in general with deep-rooted racism and injustice in the American South during the 1930s, and in particular with the shocking case of nine black men, known as the Scottsboro Boys, who in 1931 were arbitrarily yanked off a freight in Alabama and accused of raping two white women.

Though four of the accused were barely in their teens, all nine were collectively sent to trial where they were found guilty and sentenced to death in the electric chair by a grand jury. Saved by a last-minute reprieve, they faced a dizzying series of retrials covering a period of six years. The four youngest prisoners were freed in 1937, after which they appeared in a vaudeville show in Harlem’s Apollo Theatre.

Indeed, a vaudeville show – or more specifically a minstrel show – is the ingenious format that Kander, Ebb and book writer David Thompson have chosen (with disturbing irony) to recreate this terrible miscarriage of justice. By juxtaposing a jaunty, pastiche-filled score of minstrel marches, soft-shoe shuffles and witty patter routines with the prisoners’ harrowing incarceration and the bigotry they endured, the show’s message about the abhorrence of racism comes across loud and clear – and, in typically Kander and Ebb fashion, tunefully. Though echoes prevail of earlier Kander and Ebb scores, the show is full of accessible toe-tapping tunes and witty, well-turned lyrics – endangered species in the contemporary musical.

The show’s other blessing is director/choreographer Susan Stroman, whose staging diffuses the grimness of the material in a series of slick Broadway routines. Far from trivialising the plight of the accusers, the minstrel concept enhances its emotional impact. An infectious tap routine set around an electric chair particularly highlights Stroman’s approach. She also makes ironic use of that stereotypical minstrel staple, the cakewalk.

The cast includes five members of the original Broadway company, who work seamlessly with the equally fine homegrown additions. Most of them play a variety of roles (including their white female accusers), with Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon excellent as the minstrel stalwarts Mr Bones and Mr Tambo. The standout performance, though, comes from Kyle Scatliffe as Haywood Paterson, the proudest, most rebellious of the Scottsboro Boys and the one who spent the most time behind bars. Scatlliffe has a fine voice, an imposing physical presence, and dances superbly. The only white member of the cast is Julian Glover as the minstrel’s all-important quasi-sympathetic Interlocutor.

Beowulf Boritt’s simple set design – like that of John Doyle’s in this year’s other powerful black musical, The Color Purple – manipulates several chairs to maximum effect, and the show is beautifully lit by Ken Billington.

Right now there is no better musical in the West End than The Scottsboro Boys. That it was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and lost most of them to the smutty, undergraduate Book of Mormon is just scandalous.

 


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