Kander and Ebb’s “The Scottsboro Boys” was arguably the finest of last season’s new musicals when it appeared at the Vineyard in March. Producers Barry and Fran Weissler eschewed a hasty transfer in favor of a carefully planned Broadway campaign and two months of additional work at the Guthrie in Minneapolis. Results are stronger, tighter and even more impactful than the already distinguished show on display last spring. Provocative tuner seems likely to divide audiences in much the same manner as the duo’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” but this one is right up there with “Cabaret” and “Chicago.”
“Scottsboro” tells the real-life tale of nine black teenagers unjustly charged with rape in Alabama in 1931. Their convictions in a series of biased trials brought nationwide attention as the case went through numerous appeals, resulting in influential Supreme Court decisions. Not cheery stuff, and certainly a hard sell (a similar problem faced the award-winning but short-lived 1998 musical “Parade,” which told of a 1913 lynching in Georgia). The creators here latched onto the canny concept of telling the story in minstrel-show terms, allowing an influx of mirth and humor, while the prejudicial excesses of that long-denigrated form redouble the point. By adding a contemporary overlay with the presence of an enigmatic observer referred to merely as “a Lady,” “Scottsboro Boys” resonates in chilling fashion.
The cast is terrific. Any qualms about the replacement of the actor who played main defendant Haywood Patterson at the Vineyard are dispelled early on by Joshua Henry (from last season’s “American Idiot”). Henry is very good here; so is 80-year-old veteran John Cullum, who struts through the affair as the Interlocutor with a benevolent smile tinged with snarling condescension. (Cullum might have remembered some of the trial as a child growing up in the South during the six years of Scottsboro trials.)
Forrest McClendon and Colman Domingo, as the Tambo and Bones of the minstrel format, both have stirring moments in the second trial segment with their respective solos, “That’s Not the Way We Do Things in the South” and the scathing “Financial Advice.” Christian Dante White and James T. Lane score with testimony as the prostitutes who set the plot in motion, while Jeremy Gumbs impresses as the 12-year-old defendant. Matching them all is Sharon Washington, who provides the conscience of the piece as the Lady.
The Kander-Ebb-Susan Stroman-David Thompson team, from the 1997 tuner “Steel Pier,” began work in 2002; Kander finished the lyrics following Ebb’s death in September 2004. Result finds the tunesmiths at their best since 1975, offering a combination of first-rate songs (“Go Back Home”) and keenly contrived musical numbers (“Electric Chair”). Director-choreographer Stroman, working on a far simpler scale than usual, delivers her most creative and effective work in years, and Kander’s music sounds great in the hands of orchestrator Larry Hochman, arranger Glen Kelly, and musical director David Loud.
Minimal set by Beowulf Boritt works perfectly within the concept; Toni-Leslie James’ costumes combine rags, prison garb and minstrel finery in a just-right mix; and Ken Billington, the one new member of the production team, does a great job weaving dark and light (including a wonderful shadow image consisting of Washington and four chairs during the climactic “You Can’t Do Me”). And how refreshing it is that Stroman & Co. choose not to bombard us with the projections and multimedia that usually turn up in shows of this type.
While the Lyceum has seven times the seating capacity of the Vineyard, the stage seems to be slightly narrower, perhaps due to the framing of the proscenium arch. Actors appear to be relatively cramped for space, resulting in a suitably claustrophobic feel and a jolt in voltage that helps account for the increased power of “Scottsboro” in its new home on Broadway.