The Scottsboro Boys

An empty stage except for a haphazard pile of chairs, staqge-left. Three proscenium arches starting at the front of the stage and progressing upstage to a scrim, but though the front proscenium is straight, the one halfway back is a little crooked, and the back one is very crooked. Just this empty stage tells us something is wrong here. Balance is off, things are amiss, this world is not quite right.

And then the show starts. At first, it's just a black woman sitting on a chair (the chair standing in for a bus stop, we soon realize). And then before we know it, holy shit, we're watching a minstrel show! And John Cullum (Urinetown Shenandoah, On the 20th Century, and lots more), the only white actor in the show, leads eleven black actors in one of the most high-energy, entertaining opening numbers I've ever seen. Susan Stroman's choreography is nothing short of electrifying and the cast is magnificent. Kander and Ebb's songs are utterly brilliant, every one of them. David Thompson, who has written the book for some flop shows (Kander and Ebb's Steel Pier and also Harry Connick Jr.'s Thou Shalt Not, among others) has fashioned a brilliant script.

Soon, though, we learn why we're here. And this is a true story. Nine black men are riding a box car in 1931. When the Scottsboro sheriff stops two white women also riding the train (played by black men, as are all the other characters), the women are afraid of being arrested for the prostitutes they are, so they accuse the black men of raping them. And down the rabbit hole we go...

Over the course of half a dozen trials, setbacks, momentary triumphs, and death hovering over everything and everyone, we are told this bleak tale of injustice in the racist American South, in the form of a minstrel show. It's brilliant and horrifying and wildly entertaining and one of the most powerful, most disturbing shows I've ever seen in my life. It easily equals Kander and Ebb's other masterpieces, Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman. But The Scottsboro Boys is their darkest show yet... and god, what a thrill it is to witness!

Susan Stroman's direction is flawless, just like her choreography, and to my personal great delight, the twelve chairs on stage stand in for everything, from a box car to a jail cell. There's never a stick of furniture onstage other than those chairs. (I'd like to think that's because they saw New Line's Assassins and Evita but I'll have to admit that's unlikely...)

And there's a surprise in the last few seconds of the show that absolutely blows your mind and gives the entire show even more weight and context than it already had.

The incredible Colman Domingo, who I first encountered playing several roles in the brilliant Passing Strange (now on DVD, check it out!) plays "Mr. Bones" among several other roles. But Joshua Henry steals the show with his powerful, emotional performance as the tragic Heywood Patterson, one of the accused, a man who refuses to accept injustice as a given. It's one of those performances that people will be talking about for decades, like Brian Stokes Mitchell in Ragtime or Michel Bell in Show Boat.

I can't wait to get hold of the Scottsboro vocal selections. These songs surely rank up there with the best of Kander and Ebb's past work. Lyricist Fred Ebb died during the writing of the show, so composer John Kander finished it alone. In a wonderful tribute, the program credits both Kander and Ebb for both music and lyrics. I think that's the only time that has happened.

All in all, an amazing finish to a week of amazing theatre: the revival of La Cage aux Folles, American Idiot, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and The Scottsboro Boys. Yes, I also saw The Pee-Wee Herman Show at the Saturday matinee, and as wonderful as it was (I've never heard an ovation like the one Pee-Wee got when he first entered; it just went on and on and on...), and as much joy as it brought me (the secret word was FUN), it really is more sketch comedy than theatre, and only has a little music in it, so it doesn't merit a blog entry here, but if you're in NYC and you're the right age, you ought to see it. There were some kids in the house, but they didn't get a lot of it; most of the audience was my age or older...

I'm sooooooo glad to be home (I hate travel), but it's nice to see some of the cool work being done in New York, in some cases, work that New Line will be tackling down the road...

Long Live the Musical!