One of the undisputed highlights of my recent theatrical jaunt to New York City was the "new" Kander and Ebb show, The Scottsboro Boys at the Vineyard Theatre. I say "new" because, of course, the great Fred Ebb died in 2004, although he left quite a few works in progress behind him, including Curtains, The Visit, and All of Us.
The Scottsboro Boys constitutes a triumphant reunion of most of the creative team behind the delightful and underrated Steel
Pier, including Kander and Ebb themselves, as well as librettist David Thompson, and choreographer Susan Stroman. Stroman also performs directing duties here (Scott
Ellis directed Steel Pier), and The Scottsboro Boys represents a decided return to form for Stroman after the execrable Young Frankenstein and the ambitious but disappointing Happiness.
Thompson and crew have conceived The Scottsboro Boys as a minstrel show, telling the true story of the "Scottsboro Boys," a group of nine African American men falsely accused and convicted of rape in 1931 Alabama. The minstrel show concept works stunningly, reclaiming this derogatory show form as a tool of empowerment and illumination. The show only uses actual blackface once, and very briefly, but the effect is devastating.
The Kander and Ebb score for The Scottsboro Boys is miles above their score for Curtains, and includes a tuneful array of period numbers, from cakewalk to Bert Williams ballad. Stroman uses dance sparingly but effectively, particularly in the horrifyingly sprightly "Electric Chair" tap number.
And the cast is simply outstanding, including the great John Cullum, who serves alternately as emcee for the minstrel show and judge for the trial. Also on hand are Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon, two talented African American actors who act as Cullum's minstrel cohorts, and play a variety of deliberately cartoonish white roles throughout the show. (The precise relationship among these three roles could use some clarification.) The standout among the "boys" themselves is Brandon Victor Dixon in the pivotal role of Heywood, and Dixon proves he's capable of far greater things than his admittedly strong performance as Harpo in The Color Purple would have us believe.
Not every element is working at this stage in the show's development. The meaning and purpose of some of the numbers aren't quite clear, including "Commencing in Chattanooga," which the men sing on their fateful train trip. And the yuck-yuck minstrel jokes aren't really landing. Perhaps they're not meant to, but at this point most of them come off as lame. But on the whole the show is remarkable, both rousing and sobering: a heartbreaking retelling of a notorious and shameful miscarriage of justice.
The Scottsboro Boys runs at the Vineyard until April 18th, but the run is completely sold out. The Vineyard Web site has an announcement that the show has its "eyes set on Broadway," and offers patrons the chance to sign up for ticket-offer notifications. Now that Lips Together, Teeth Apart has been canceled, and both All About Me and The Miracle Worker are closing, there are increasing odds that the show might actually make it to Broadway, perhaps this season.
If there's any justice, that is.
GRADE: A minus (Could be a masterpiece, with a few tweaks)