Three years after its brief but acclaimed Broadway run, The Scottsboro Boys is finally having its Los Angeles premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre now through June 30. The last musical jointly penned by gay duo John Kander and Fred Ebb of Cabaret and Chicago fame (Ebb passed away in 2004), it takes on a true, 20th century saga of racism and injustice via a decidedly controversial approach: a vaudevillian minstrel show. The predominantly African-American cast members play white as well as black characters, with the Caucasians more often than not presented as broad caricatures. Hal Linden — yes, old Barney Miller himself — is the one exception as The Interlocutor, an Old South narrator figure who also plays an array of white supporting characters.
In 1931, nine young black men riding a freight train through Alabama were detained in the town of Scottsboro after being falsely accused of rape by two white, female passengers. They were found guilty at the end of the first of several trials held over as many years and were initially sentenced to death in the electric chair. A New York attorney, Samuel Leibowitz, intervened and demanded a second trial for the men. They were again found guilty, even though one of their accusers told the court that she and her friend had lied about the rape. Other appeals followed, with the men repeatedly found guilty. Finally, charges were dropped against four of them in 1937 due to their youth at the time of the alleged rape. Four others were paroled between 1946 and 1950 but Haywood Patterson, who steadfastly maintained his innocence, died in prison in 1952. Shockingly, the so-called Scottsboro Boys were only officially pardoned by the state of Alabama last month, more than 80 years later.
Given this tortured history, the bold approach taken for the musical by Kander, Ebb, book author David Thompson and director-choreographer Susan Stroman that essentially points a raised middle finger toward the racist South certainly seems justified. Some viewers, however, may well find it challenging or possibly in bad taste; a middle-aged white couple sitting next to me fled the theater after about 30 minutes. For black actors to portray whites as buffoons in the show’s inverted-minstrel style is unquestionably confrontational. It’s also pretty damn brilliant. Linden’s character certainly doesn’t provide any comfort for white theatregoers, intent as The Interlocutor is on keeping the ol’ Southern cake walk alive and having “the boys” perform for the crowd’s perceived amusement.
I found the book disjointed in spots, with the finale in particular announced without much immediate momentum. The show’s finale does play two great wild cards, one involving the men’s attire and the other a reveal of the sole female performer’s character. As always, though, Kander & Ebb’s songs ring with their trademarked brand of political commentary, incisive humor and emotional truth. Standouts include the catchy opener “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!”; the longing “Go Back Home”; “Financial Advice,” in which Alabama’s Attorney General excoriates the Jewish Leibowitz; and the church-appropriate “Shout!” Haywood, played by the dramatically- and physically-stunning Joshua Henry (reprising his Tony-nominated turn from the original Broadway production), has two affecting solos: “Nothin” and the climactic “You Can’t Do Me.” While the entire cast is uniformly excellent, Trent Armand Kendall and JC Montgomery are also particular standouts as respectively Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, the show’s chief minstrel players.
The Scottsboro Boys is polarizing, to be sure, but it is nonetheless a tuneful and educational must-see in LA and wherever it plays in the future.
Reverend’s Rating: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest, Rage Monthly Magazine and Echo Magazine.