Susan Stroman’s staging of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “The Scottsboro Boys” finally comes to L.A.’s Ahmanson Theater after stints on Broadway, San Diego and elsewhere. Although most of the Broadway cast has been replaced, the essential problem of this ambitious tuner remains: The minstrel show format conflicts with the telling of the tale, and much of Kander and Ebb’s signature showbiz music runs counter to who these characters are.
As we learn very late in the show, some of the real-life Scottsboro Boys entered vaudeville after having been incarcerated for years on trumped-up charges of rape. But during the course of their two hours on stage, these nine African-American characters are never performers; they’re minding their own business, looking for manual labor, when two white women in 1930s Mississippi accuse them of rape. They never seek the spotlight nor do they exploit it, even when they are thrust into it during a series of unjust trials. The razzle-dazzle of two third-rate starstruck hoofers like Roxie and Velma from “Chicago” holds no meaning for them, and yet that’s what they’re given to express their despair.
One could make a case for using the minstrel show format to help depict the atmosphere of degradation in which these men lived. In “The Scottsboro Boys,” book writer David Thompson turns that concept on its head, and has his nearly all African-American cast play the racist white ladies, judges and sheriffs. Unfortunately, what Thompson’s script never does is show us why anyone would ever have found a minstrel show entertaining in the first place. This material isn’t just racist, it’s downright dreadful. From the get-go, we feel superior to the routines, then bored, then resentful of having to sit through them.
What Thompson’s book should do is make us complicit, forcing us to catch ourselves as we laugh. Douglas Carter Beane accomplishes this in his current Broadway play, “The Nance,” which offers brilliant, witty and, yes, homophobic burlesque skits that show us the origin of so many derogatory gay stereotypes. We laugh, maybe we feel guilt, but we definitely learn. Beane also has the extraordinary talent of Nathan Lane and Lewis J. Stadlen to pull off his hilariously retro jokes.
With “Scottsboro,” it doesn’t help that Stroman has pushed her actors, as she did on Broadway, to perform minstrel as if they were in a high-school production, as if egregiously over-the-top bad acting would indicate the genre’s inherent awfulness. It’s curious how a director could make us laugh at the soulless gay characters in “The Producers” and yet fail to find any humor whatsoever in the soulless white racists on stage here.
Joshua Henry, playing the lead Scottsboro victim, repeats his Tony-nominated performance. Hal Linden brings his understated charm to the role of the Interlocutor.