Unusual Musical “Scottsboro Boys” Launched At The Old Globe

By Jack Lyons Theatre & Film Critic

It’s rare to see a musical that had only forty-nine performances in its 2010 Off-Broadway New York debut, become the current production on the Donald and Darlene Shiley stage at San Diego’s venerable Old Globe Theatre.  Technically, it’s a revival and is not a re-imagining.

“The Scottsboro Boys”, a daring, off beat show with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and a libretto by David Thompson, is directed by Five-time Tony Award winning director/choreographer Susan Stroman, the musical’s original director and choreographer of the 2010 Vineyard Theatre production – which produced twelve Tony Nominations, but no wins.

The Old Globe’s high-energy production is based on a series of infamous trials over the years, of nine African American men accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931.  Kander and Ebb who have a successful track record of taking on controversial subject matter (“Cabaret”- anti-Semitism, “Chicago”- big city corruption, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” – Hispanic prison brutality) now offer their take on the American justice system during the 1930’s with “The Scottsboro Boys”.   In this production, they explore a miscarriage of justice at a time in America when the ‘good old days’ weren’t so good for everyone – especially, if you were black and lived south of the Mason-Dixon line. Down there, “Mister Jim Crow” was very much alive and well.

It’s not easy, however, cozying up to a musical that treats its characters and the situations, at times, so dismissively, even going so far as to employ the long abandoned and demeaning “ minstrel show” style and form and its musical numbers as a continuing motif.  But the audience reaction to the shocking storyline is exactly what the creative team is hoping for, and I dare say, will get.

Stroman, according to interviews as well as comments by others concerning the show, (which received mixed critical notices in NY) said the Old Globe production was not going to be tweaked or fiddled with for is West Coast premiere.   She and the cast had several weeks of rehearsals and her show, in essence, is ready to open.   Undoubtedly,  some will “get” the raison de etre of her vision and the framing of the musical; utilizing the minstrel show within a musical show format.  Others, may not.

Having said all of the above regarding the story and its structure and its impact, it’s easy to heap tons of praise, however, on the thirteen-member cast without any reservation whatsoever.  They perform both individually and as an ensemble, brilliantly.  They never lose sight of the highs and lows of the complicated off-beat story they’re telling.

It’s always difficult to mention everyone in an ensemble show.  However, certain performances stand out.  Ron Holgate as the benign-appearing Interlocutor in the minstrel sequences, and his portrayal of other roles with redneck relish, is right on-the-nose.   Jared Joseph as Mr. Bones, and JC Montgomery as Mr. Tambo, are nothing short of terrific.  Clifton Duncan who portrays the lead prisoner Haywood Patterson, is solid and his performance is very compelling.  Actually, there isn’t a less than stellar performance in the bunch.  And, man, can these gentlemen sing and dance.  There is one character called The Lady, played by C. Kelly Wright.  She is onstage throughout the entire performance but doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue until the final moment of the play, and then she brings down the house with her life-altering words.

When it comes to the technical credits, the Old Globe has few equals.  In the hands of director/choreographer Susan Stroman, the production is clever and inventive.   Thanks to a clean, spare, and functional Set Design provided by Beowulf Boritt, the set features three huge concentric picture frames that are intentionally set askew which perfectly complements the story and the vision of Stroman’s direction.  Ken Billington’s lighting design and Jon Weston’s sound design, along with Costumes by Toni-Leslie James, lend a neat, trim look to the entire production.

Kudos also go to Musical Director Eric Ebbenga, and his team of thirteen pit musicians, and for orchestrations by Larry Hochman, for musical arrangements by Glen Kelly, and for the vocal arrangements provided by David Loud.  First rate all.

“The Scottsboro Boys” runs through to June 10, 2012.  Contact the Old Globe for ticket information and reservations at www.theoldglobe.org.

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