Tim Leininger, Contributing Critic - Connecticut
John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical “The Scottsboro Boys” was not one of the duo’s more successful shows. The show opened on Broadway on Oct. 31, 2010 closed within six weeks amidst protests from people who were offended by the musical’s minstrel show themes.
Now, Playhouse on Park has chosen to take on this very timely, if possibly problematic musical, running through Aug. 4.
It was their second to last release, opening about six years after Ebb died – their final collaboration, “The Visit,” premiered in 2015.
The duo had a history of using specific genres of performance styles to portray society’s problems by utilizing the aesthetic of that genre. “Chicago,” for example, uses vaudeville to address the glamorization and media glorification of criminals, in particular murderers. “Cabaret” uses a cabaret to juxtapose being blinded by escapism in the midst of rising tyranny.
With “The Scottsboro Boys” Kander and Ebb take on what is arguably their most controversial venture. With playwright David Thompson, they created a story about a black minstrel group telling the tragedy of The Scottsboro Boys, a true story about nine African American boys, all no older than 20 at the time of their arrest, who were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama in 1931.
“The Scottsboro Boys” is a show that requires a delicate balance of creative tact and total commitment by the cast members. Anything less runs the risk of making the musical numbers not reflect the uncomfortable nature the show should have on audiences, especially white audiences. The concept of there being a minstrel show alone is arguably racist and to have black actors tell a deeply disturbing story of racial injustice in the United States in this fashion is a bold proposition.
Playhouse on Park and director Sean Harris appear to have taken a more conservative approach with the show, opting to minimize the amount of minstrel style performances throughout.
The minstrel numbers are primarily reserved for Mr. Bones (Ivory McKay) and Mr. Tambo (Torrey Linder) who called the show’s “clowns” intended to increase the supposed comedic quality of the show.
The nine men who play the Scottsboro Boys mostly avoid any kind of minstrel performances outside of the opening and closing numbers. The only obvious exception is Heywood Patterson (Troy Valjean Rucker), who resists being portrayed as a joke, but is forced to do so by the Interlocutor (Dennis Holland), the lone white role in the show.
I have mixed feelings about this choice. Anyone, white or black, giving a minstrel performance is disturbing and diminishing the broad qualities that are inherent in minstrel performances can be easier on the nerves of audience members and lets the story do its job.
But, since the premise is of a black minstrel show cast telling this story, there would be a more audacious, daring, and, most importantly, accusatory quality of having the terrifying tale of institutional racism in the south juxtaposed with the institutional racism that existed in the entertainment industry at the time of the 1930s.
As for the performances, the highlights are Rucker and McKay. Both are the only two actors who appeared to fully commit themselves to what Kander, Ebb, and Thompson ask of them. Rucker in particular has some great moments of severity and honesty, addressing the injustices accosted upon him. He and McKay, when called upon, really push the absurdity of what minstrel shows were.
Credit should be given to the ensemble of men for its vocal prowess, though some of the acting was pretty stiff or non-existent. The voices of everyone was fantastic and capturing some of the complex, rich Kander harmonies.
Also Darlene Zoller’s choreography shows an inherent trust in the abilities of the ensemble to move with precision flips and somersaults in the short ceilinged stage.
“The Scottsboro Boys” is a great and daring musical and Playhouse on Park does produce a solid production, but I would have liked to have seen it played less safe and take more risks with the material.
The Scottsboro Boys
Theater: Playhouse on Park
Location: 244 Park Road, West Hartford
Production: Music and Lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb; Book by David Thompson; Original Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman; Orchestrations by Larry Hochman; Musical Arrangements by Glen Kelly; Vocal Arrangements by David Loud; Directed by Sean Harris; Choreography by Darlene Zoller; Music Direction by Melanie Guerin; Scenic Design by David Lewis; Lighting Design by Johann Fitzpatrick; Costume Design by Vilinda McGregor; Props Artisan and Set Dresser: Eileen O’Connor; Sound Design by Rider Q. Stanton; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook
Show times: Wednesday and Thursday 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 8 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m.
Tickets: $35 to $50. Available online at www.playhouseonpark.org, by phone at 860-523-5900 ext. 10, or at the box office.