Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
The Beautiful South
May 15, 2012
Want to see an excellent musical? I mean one of the best things you’ll see all year? Well if you're in Los Angeles, of course, you can go see the Tony-nominated revival of Sondheim’s Follies at the Ahmanson Theater. But let’s say you live farther south. Or let’s say you own a car or have access to one. Or let’s say you can walk enough to get yourself on a train. If any of the above are true, you should do everything and anything under your power to see another great show that just hit San Diego’s Old Globe Theater last week. It’s the west coast premiere of the final completed musical from Kander and Ebb, The Scottsboro Boys and it is nothing short of a stunner. It also was lauded with Tony nominations in 2011 including best musical (though cruelly ignored under the Book of Mormon bandwagon proving again that the Oscars don’t have the market cornered on self-serving industry myopia). And now the show has arrived for the first of two California runs with a stint at A.C.T. in San Francisco to follow this summer.
The show is vintage Kander and Ebb. In fact, it is much more so identifiably the heir of shows like Cabaret and Chicago than it is related to the unfinished Curtains that surfaced after a completion in 2006. The Scottsboro Boys, with a book by David Thompson, takes ostensibly weighty material, in this case racism and the early civil rights movement, and gives it that ironic, scathing commentary Kander and Ebb were masters of by dressing it up in immensely catchy familiar folk-influence showtunes. This combination invites controversy, actually inspiring a few protests on Broadway during its 2010 run. The show recounts the real events surrounding the infamous 1930s case of The Scottsboro Boys, nine African-American men who were unjustly accused and eventually convicted of rape charges while riding the rails looking for work from Chattanooga to Memphis. The original trial, where the defendants received little to no representation and were convicted and sentenced to death by an all white jury, became a cause celebre inflaming tensions between the North and South in the earliest years of the civil rights movement.
The highlights of this lengthy decades long story are deftly compressed into an intermissionless 105 minutes for a musical that is clear concise and never drags. The controversy arises from Kander and Ebb’s choice to cast the performance as a single large minstrel show complete with episodes of performers in blackface. It still touches a nerve and I’ll admit to sucking my breath in on more than one occasion when the two stock minstrel characters, Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones, take on any number of the several small ancillary roles in the story not associated with the actors playing the nine accused men. (It’s an entirely African-American cast with the exception of The Interlocutor who serves as judge, mayor and other executive white authority figures.) However, this artistic strategy, using the traditions and images of minstrelsy as a point of departure in examining a legacy of racism and discrimination in the United States is hardly new. Visual artists like Kara Walker and filmmakers like Robert Townshend and Spike Lee have mined similar veins in different ways for decades. But perhaps the most disquieting thing about the juxtaposition in this context is that most American theater goers may not realize how central the minstrel tradition was to developing what would later follow as Vaudeville and what we think of today as the American Musical Theater. The blackface may be gone for the most part, but like all of American culture and history, you don’t have to dig very deep to find some of the horror our modern world was built on.
The songs are among the best Kander and Ebb wrote and they are given superlative performances by this ensemble cast. At the center of the dramatic proceedings is Clifton Duncan as Haywood Patterson who has one of the longest story arcs of any of the accused men. Duncan’s warm effortless voice makes numbers like “Nothin’” and “Make Friends with the Truth” showstoppers. Jared Joseph and J.C. Montgomery also get a chance to stand out from the pack as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo respectively touring through any number of characters both crude and eerily serious. Director and choreographer Susan Stroman has come with the show to California with its new cast and recreates her sparse, but intensely affecting show, which relies principally on the abilities of its cast to get the point across.
Yes, this is not Jersey Boys. We should all be thankful for that. However, it is great theater and you should not miss an opportunity to see it in either San Diego or San Francisco this year. The Old Globe will continue with the run through June 10.