Sunday, May 6, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "The Scottsboro Boys" at The Old Globe

“Scottsboro” Mostly a Snoozefest:

The Old Globe’s well-sung revival lacks pizzazz and panache

By Donnie Matsuda

Musicals about racial prejudice and injustice seem to be all the rage this year in San Diego.

And that can be a very good thing as the sorry stories and largely unwritten (and unacceptable) chapters of American history are finally given their chance to be heard by a mainstream audience.  However, it’s a very tricky thing to musicalize such tragic tales, as they don’t easily lend themselves to bright and bouncy song-and-dance numbers and the pain of the past is hard to take in and enjoy as broad-based entertainment.  Not to say that it can’t be done and be done incredibly well (as Cygnet Theatre’s powerhouse production of Parade proves with its evocative re-telling of the 1913 Leo Frank trial), but it has to be brilliantly inspired and masterfully executed if it is to gain a grand following.  While the Old Globe’s regional revival of The Scottsboro Boys has some of the former, it is somewhat sorely lacking in the latter.

(L to R): Jared Joseph as Mr. Bones, Ron Holgate as The Interlocutor, and JC Montgomery as Mr. Tambo in "The Scottsboro Boys" at The Old Globe.  Photo by Henry DiRocco.
The Scottsboro Boys details the trials and tribulations of nine young African American men as they are wrongly accused of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931.  Given the bigotry bred in the South, it is perhaps no surprise that these nine young men – aged 13 to 19 – found no safe harbor in the all-white, racially charged legal system as they were jailed and then tried and re-tried for crimes they never committed.  In the end, it took 45 years before these boys were exonerated (some had died before seeing any semblance of justice), but their ongoing fight for freedom did spark changes in the legal system and eventually became a catalyst for the emerging Civil Rights Movement. 

And now their stories are being given the musical treatment in The Scottsboro Boys, a sardonic blend of old-fashioned razzmatazz and historical fact, all framed within the context of a modern-day minstrel show.  With a strangely satiric tone, David Thompson’s book tries to lampoon the whirlwind of colorful characters that surrounded the boys’ tragic journey for justice, while the modest ragtime-rich score by the legendary songwriting team of Kander and Ebb (a far cry from their edgy, more contemporary creations for Chicago, Cabaret, and Curtains) is much more subdued than its broad-based vaudeville scheme might suggest.  The show has a little history of its own as it originally opened Off-Broadway in March 2010 and went on to a brief Broadway run (49 performances) which garnered it 12 Tony nominations and no wins.

JC Montgomery as Samuel Leibowtiz and the cast of "The Scottsboro Boys."  Photo by Henry DiRocco.
Currently in its West Coast premiere, the Old Globe’s regional production (which is co-produced by SF’s American Conservatory Theatre and essentially reunites the entire creative team of the Broadway show) is appropriately slick and well-sung as any professional mounting should be, but it is hindered by both its ineffectual central conceit as well as its tragic, tortuous historical underpinnings.  It is a challenge to try to make this story stay true to its historical roots while also keeping it intriguing and entertaining to modern-day audiences, but it needs a fresh format and some creative constructs to make this bitterly unjust pill easier to swallow.  Unfortunately, the production here has decided to go in the opposite direction and employ the archaic and potentially offensive motif of an old-timey minstrel show in order to frame the stories of these nine wronged men.  

It is an idea that was born out of the actual 1930’s court cases of the Scottsboro Boys in which these men – some of whom were too young to know what “rape” even is - were innocent victims of the media circus and the showy shenanigans of the “white is right” justice system of the era.  But when applied to tell the musicalized version of the Scottsboro story (with a few 20th century performance styles thrown in for good measure), the minstrel motif that frames the show quickly begins to wear away the impact of its own storytelling and in fact begins to work against it – by constantly presenting stereotypical stock comedy in the guise of a story about racial injustice.  Actually, the comedy – which is mostly juvenile and unfunny – is presented in sidebars (or rather, side-shows) by two narrators, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, who are played by the most light-skinned of the black actors.  It’s a counterintuitive study in ethical and racial contrasts and it’s one that doesn’t make one compare as much as it makes one uncomfortable. 

Clifton Duncan as Haywood Patterson (center) with C. Kelly Wright as The Lady and Eric Jackson as Clarence Norris in "The Scottsboro Boys."  Photo by Henry DiRocco.
Fortunately, we can almost forget about the underdeveloped and uninspired concept, thanks to the potent performances of the Globe’s uniformly first-rate cast.  Most noteworthy is the powerfully-voiced Clifton Duncan as Haywood Patterson, who is the most clearly defined character in the entire show and who leads the band of boys with his passion for integrity and honesty.  Duncan helms the cast in many of the musical numbers and blends a captivating presence with a booming baritone in such numbers as the jaunty and tuneful “Commencing in Chattanooga” (easily the best number in the show), the bluesy ballad “Nothin’,” and the angst-filled and emotional 11-o’clock number, “You Can’t Do Me.”

Jared Joseph and JC Montgomery as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, respectively, are brilliant caricaturists who pull out all the tongue-in-cheek stops they can to win the audience over with their all-knowing winks and mile-wide smiles.  As they seamlessly embody a wide range of white supporting characters – from abusive guards to chauvinistic sheriffs to the boys’ Northern Jewish lawyer Sam Leibowitz – they do what they can to make the broad comedy of their cartoonish characters more palatable to modern-day minds.  And equally exciting is the versatile acting of Clifton Oliver and James T. Lane who portray two of the Scottsboro Boys while also doubling as Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, the white Southern belles who make the life-altering allegations of rape.  With high pitch squeals and batting eyes, these two men induce more than a few chuckles in their silly, simpering ode to maidenhood in “Alabama Ladies” and “Alabama Ladies (reprise).”  

And as the white ringleader of the show, Ron Holgate (almost a spitting image of Uncle Sam himself) is appropriately commanding and clueless as The Interlocutor.  His attempts to rally the boys to gather round and perform the cakewalk provide the show’s most obvious metaphor for the changing tide of public opinion, as does the cameo stint by C. Kelly Wright as The Lady (an homage to Rosa Parks) as she sits silently perched on her chair watching the entire show from the side.  Rounding out the cast are the rest of the Scottsboro Boys, all of whom are magnetic performers and enact their powerful historical counterparts with appeal and aplomb.  They are: David Bazemore as Olen Montgomery, Nile Bullock as Eugene Williams, Christopher James Culberson as Andy Wright, Eric Jackson as Clarence Norris, Shavey Brown as Willie Roberson, and Clinton Roane as Roy Wright.

Ron Holgate as The Interlocutor (center) and the cast of "The Scottsboro Boys."  Photo by Henry DiRocco.
Director and choreographer Susan Stroman uses every creative inch of her imagination to try and fit the saggy storytelling and caricatured characters of Thompson’s ragamuffin script into more refined musical theatre conventions.  She stages this piece with as much vibrant verve as she possibly can and showcases some brilliant work in the show’s energetic opening number “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!” a fun yet not very functional shadow puppet play in “Make Friends With the Truth,” and the ebullient toe-tapping tambourine dance, “Shout!”  And if her tap-savvy choreography in Broadway’s The Producers and Young Frankenstein were not fresh enough in our minds, she reminds us of her penchant for high-stepping hoofing in the truly electrifying tap trio, “Electric Chair.” 

The technical elements of the Globe’s production leave much to be desired, but perhaps that’s an attempt to stay true to the stripped-down minstrel show format.  Beowulf Boritt’s barely-there set consists of three raked wooden arches and a dozen or so mismatched chairs (which Stroman uses in a number of innovative ways to form boxcar bottoms, courtroom benches, and jail cells).  Toni-Leslie James’ costumes and Ken Billington’s lighting are serviceable but not spectacular, while sound designer Jon Weston ensures that the excellent yet eclectic 9-piece orchestra - under the baton of Music director Eric Ebbenga – doesn’t miss a beat. 

(Foreground, from left) Clifton Oliver as Victoria Price and James T. Lane as Ruby Bates with the cast of "The Scottsboro Boys."  Photo by Henry DiRocco.
All things considered, the creative team behind The Scottsboro Boys should be commended for taking such a controversial yet creative approach to dramatizing this sad chapter in American history.  It’s a story that deserves to be told and perhaps with a little more savvy added to its script, a more in-depth exploration of its full cast of characters, and a lot more glitz and glamour, it will have a long-standing run on the regional circuit and finally do justice to the legacy of the nine Boys who most deserve it.

Things to know before you go: The Scottsboro Boys plays at the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage at The Old Globe through June 10, 2012.  Running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes without an intermission.  Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 7pm.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (619) 23-GLOBE or visit

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