Sunday, February 12, 2017

At Porchlight, Kander & Ebb's 'The Scottsboro Boys' Musically Illuminates a Tragic Injustice -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Scottsboro Boys
Porchlight Music Theatre
at Stage 773, Chicago
Thru March 12

Composer John Kander and the late lyricist Fred Ebb collaborarated on some of the greatest works of musical theater ever created, including Cabaret and Chicago.

I'm also a big fan of Kander & Ebb's The Visit, which premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 2001 before finally landing on Broadway in 2015; both productions starred Chita Rivera, as did one in 2008 near Washington, DC. I saw all three, and have also enjoyed local stagings of their Curtains and The Rink.

Though I've seen Cabaret and Chicago multiple times, I've never knowingly had an opportunity to catch K&E's famed Kiss of the Spider Woman, nor other notable works like Zorba and Steel Pier.

But with Cabaret, especially, being among my very favorite musicals--its festive, brassy score masterfully undermined by a sense of foreboding as people danced on the edge of extinction--my appreciation of Kander & Ebb runs deep.

Photo credit on all: Kelsey Jorissen
So I eagerly took note of the first Chicago staging of The Scottsboro Boys, by the erstwhile Porchlight
Music Theatre.

Though the musical's brief 2010 Broadway run preceded The Visit's arrival on the Great White Way, it is considered the last Kander & Ebb collaboration.

Fred Ebb passed away in 2004 and John Kander, who is now a month shy of 90, finished lyrics that his partner left incomplete, while also writing the music. The show's book is by David Thompson.

I've seen a number of stellar musical productions by Porchlight at Stage 773 on Belmont--including their recent terrific take on In the Heights--and the harrowing story of the real-life Scottsboro Boys seemed like one I should know, especially after missing a non-musical stage piece (Direct From Death Row The Scottsboro Boys) that recently earned raves at Chicago's Raven Theatre.

In 1931, nine teenage African-American men riding a freight train from Chattanooga to Memphis resisted an assault by a group of white men, who got off the train and complained to police. Concurrently, two white women who were on the train and at risk of being arrested for prostitution, claimed they were raped by the black men. 

The nine men were tried in Scottboro, Alabama, where despite a recantation by one of the women and scant evidence of any guilt, they were convicted. The case became something of a cause célèbre among Northern liberals and Communists, and while subsequent trials and years saw the release of some of the men, guilty verdicts were handed down repeatedly.

Whether in prison or out, most of the Scottsboro boys died quite young.

This may seem like tough subject matter for a musical, but between the way their brilliant Cabaret hinted at the rise of Nazism and Chicago depicted a court case, the material would seem to be in excellent hands with Kander & Ebb.

And between the actual history, the legacy of the composer/lyricist team and the Chicago premiere by a troupe I've often enjoyed, The Scottsboro Boys felt like an important show for me to see.

On all those levels it was, and even if I didn't find it on par with Kander & Ebb's best, or Porchlight's, it is certainly worth one's while.

Subversively, given the subject matter, the story is told through the framework of a minstrel show, with a white Interlocutor (the routinely excellent Larry Yando, though uncomfortably so here) and otherwise entirely black cast.

Though clearly older than the 18-year-old Haywood Patterson that he plays (and not the son of James Earl Jones, though he's related), James Earl Jones II is also terrific, as usual, as the most prominent of the Scottsboro Boys onstage.

Whether solo or along with others, Jones' vocal prowess raises the opening "Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey," "Commencing in Chattanooga," the powerful song of defiance, "Nothing," the beautiful "Go Back Home" and "Make Friends with the Truth," among others.

Imbued with southern and minstrel stylings, Kander's score is never less than interesting, and often delightful, if not as robustly so as that of Cabaret, Chicago or even The Visit.

And the six-piece band sounded great.

Yet while I understand the conceit of the "minstrel show" is meant to mock the circus that the actual proceedings appear to have been, for me it tended to dissipate the power of the storytelling.

Certainly, as the Interlocutor's chief jesters, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, Denzel Tsopnang and Mark J.P. Hood, respectively, are terrific. And their embodiment of the two white female accusers adds to abject inanity of the distressing situation.

But Hood's seemingly mocking portrayal of Jewish lawyer Samuel Leibovitz, who later came to the aid of the Scottsboro Boys, had me a bit confused. And though learning about the real events--including the treatment of Haywood Patterson, who learned to write while in jail and would author an account of the injustices--was undeniably moving and angering, I'm not sure if the emotional impact was as deep as it should have been.

There was much good and nothing obviously deficient in the script, songs, casting, performances--Stephen Allen, Jr., who was excellent in In the Heights also does nice work here--or the direction by Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. (the Artistic Director of Chicago's Congo Square Theater) and choreography by Florence Walker-Harris.

But whether due to the show as written--The Scottsboro Boys wasn't a big hit on Broadway, received mixed reviews and won no Tony Awards despite 12 nominations--or the choices and limitations of the Porchlight production, my introduction to this Kander & Ebb musical, while enjoyable, enlightening and important, was neither perfect nor fully enriching.

That isn't quite the verdict I was hoping to reach, but unlike the miscarriage of justice that actually destroyed the lives of the Scottsboro Boys, I think it's fair.

And just for the reasons I wanted to see this show, I recommend it to almost anyone.

This isn't quite a Kander & Ebb masterpiece, but it's nonetheless still a rather significant, eminently watchable, entirely relevant piece from two undeniable masters of musical theater.

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