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|A CurtainUp London Review
The Scottsboro Boys
The Scottsboro Boys Ride Into the West End
"Come, and watch them sing and dance. Come, and share their tears and joys. Come, this is your final chance, to meet the Scottsboro Boys!."
— The Interlocutor
Every now and then it is refreshing to see a production in the West End that actually really matters. I'm not discrediting any of the incredible shows I have been fortunate to witness since reviewing theatre in London, but in all that time I don't think there has ever been a production so powerful and relevant as this. Off hand, I'm pretty sure there is only one other performance I have ever stood up for during the curtain call. It was Peter Brook's 11/12 at the Barbican (a profound master class in theatre making) and this production required no less gratitude.
Colman Domingo (Mr Bones), Julian Glover (The Interlocutor), Forrest McClendon (MrTambo) (Photo: Johan Persson)
A transfer from its hugely successful run at the Young Vic, The Scottsboro Boys moves into the West End's Garrick Theatre and deservedly so. Hopefully its central venue will enable London's huge prospective audience of theatregoers to see this most important of musicals. The plot follows the true story of a group of black men who were falsely charged with gang raping two white Alabama women and the subsequent mass of injustices thrown upon them during their many trials. The story is told through song and dance taking on the shameful form of the old minstrel shows to enormous effect. Susan Stroman's direction is a perfect example of juxtaposing enjoyment and horror. Projecting this deep and regretting tale through comedy and music makes the depth of sadness and anger an audience would and should feel of this period in history so much stronger. You will never have seen a production so apt at causing such a conflict of emotions and that is credit to Stroman's ingenuity.
This is an ensemble production with not a weak cast member. Bandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson has a truly affecting voice and manner. His stage presence carries much of the tension and depth of the production. The comical talents of Dex Lee and James T Lane as 'Victoria Price' and 'Ruby Bates', the Alabama women, offset the excruciatingly taut atmosphere that lingers throughout. All the other roles are played by members of the company with an all round grade of perfection. No part is over played and no moment is over drawn. The set is eloquently designed by Beowulf Boritt and the simple use of chairs to represent a variety of locations is inspiring.
It is important advice to note that some may leave with despair and regret. Rightly so does the production highlight humiliating injustices, yet one can also regard the production as a force for continued change. Millions, if not billions, of people in the world still live their lives against hatred, racism and debasement. Many still are fighting the kind of battles that the Scottsboro Boys did. Complacency is not an option, and at a time when political parties like 'UKIP', the'BNP' or European parties such as the 'Polish Congress Of The New Right' are growing stronger, it is critical that equality and human harmony should forever be in our sights. This poignant production is a stern reminder.
Current Production Notes
The Scottsboro Boys
Music and Lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb
Directed and Choreographed by Susan Stroman
Designed by Beowulf Stroman
Book by David Thompson
Starring: Joshua Da Costa, Brandon Victor Dixon, Colman Domingo, Julian Glover, Dawn Hope, Emmanuel Kojo, James T Lane, Dex Lee, Forrest McClendon, Keenan Munn-Francis, Rohan Pinnock-Hamilton, Emile Ruddock, Carl Spencer, Richard Pitt, Jacade Simpson, Luke Wilson.
Lighting: Ken Billington
Sound: Paul Arditti
Musical Direction: Phil Cornwell
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes no interval
Box Office: 0844 412 4662
Booking to 21st February 2015
Reviewed by Tim Newns based on 20th October 2014 production at the Garrick Theatre, 2 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0HH
The earlier London review
"Justice is Just us!"
— Mr Bones
The Scottsboro Boys is an unusual topic for a musical but it tells an important story of injustice that needs to be told. Its style is even more remarkable as it takes the form of a minstrel show, but with black actor/singers playing all the parts unlike the original minstrel shows where white men "blacked up" to sing.
Cast in The Scottsboro Boys
(Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Then there is the comedy with which the tragedy is delivered — something that is hard for us to take. Thinking back to the then shockingly comic portrayal of Nazi Germany in Kander and Ebb's biggest hit Cabaret (or should that biggest hit be Chicago?) with its satirical delivery, the Scottsboro Boys takes this satire one step further and into a place which I, at times, found deeply uncomfortable. This is my only reservation about a show with wonderful music, dance, singing and dazzling performances.
For a history of the show, the storyline and songlist, in New York from The Vineyard Theatre and beyond go here. About half the cast have played their roles on Broadway and are American actors, the others have been recruited in London. Susan Stroman continues as director and choreographer and brings over the American Set, Costume and Lighting Designers. British actor Julian Glover takes over as the Master of Ceremonies or Interlocutor.
With the opening number of ragtime music, the cast fill from the auditorium showing loads of energy, enthusiasm and hope. They are showmen all with foot bumping and tambourine playing. We meet Mr Bones (Colman Dominge) and Mr Tambo (Forrest McClendon) two characters straight out of comedy music hall, one of which goes on to play the white sheriff.
Getting on the train in search of work are the nine boys who are accused by two girls played by two of the men in cloche hats and much simpering when the train stops in Scottsboro, Alabama. We meet Haywood Patterson (Kyle Scatliffe) whose 1950 biography "Scottsboro Boy" was one of the sources for the book of the musical. I was left asking why these two girls would lie about the rape. They two girls were migrant workers, hoboes like the accused men, who had been involved in a fight and made up this story to prevent the charges being made against them. The trials that follow are farcical if it were not that men's lives were at stake.
The contrast between the jokey style and life threatening events continues to shock and the tap dance with the strobe set around the electric chair has exciting and dramatic lighting effects. A sad slow ballad "Go Back Home" from Haywood and the boys is truly moving. A second trial brings renewed hope and the New York Jewish lawyer Samuel Leibowitz (Forrest McClendon). The tunes have a good variety with a mix of jazz styles, banjo and minstrel ballads. The set designer cleverly uses minimal aluminium and steel wheels and chairs to recreate trains and prison cells.
If you can overcome the satirical delivery of these very sad outcomes for the Scottsboro boys, you will be blown away by this last collaboration between Kander and Ebb, by the exhilarating dance and wonderful singing in this thrilling production.