Tuesday 21 October 2014

The Scottsboro Boys - Review

Garrick Theatre,  London


Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb
Book by David Thompson
Directed and choreography by Susan Stroman

l-r  Colman Domingo, Julian Glover and Forrest McClendon

A year after it wowed the critics in its London debut at the Young Vic, (see my 2013 review below) The Scottsboro Boys returns to cross the Thames. With many of the 2013 cast reprising their roles at the Garrick, the show's West End opening offers a rare privilege to re-review this 5-star treat, last year's Critics' Circle choice as Best Musical.

The Scottsboro Boys is written around a true 1930's travesty of justice that defined the hateful ugliness of America's Deep South. Eight black men and a boy, all of African American heritage, were falsely accused of raping two white women as their train stopped in Scottsboro, Alabama. Their subsequent conviction and death sentences polarised the USA. As the South was still licking its wounds barely 70 years after the Civil War, the North mounted a defence campaign that was to see 8 of the nine boys paroled. Parole, by its very nature, demands an admission of guilt and amidst a bevy of standout performances, it is Brandon Victor Dixon's Haywood Patterson, a man whose conscience couldn't permit him to utter a lie and who, defiantly, was to spend his life wrongly incarcerated, upon whom the story's spotlight falls.

Dixon is a long-established Broadway talent and having spent the last year listening to his voice on my iPhone in the NY cast recording, it is a privilege to witness him live. Patterson's journey carries the show and he bears his principled stand with passion, poignancy and perfect performance. The brilliant jazz-hands irony of his softly sung Nothing as he pleads his innocence, echoes the sardonic lyric of Kander and Ebb's Mr Cellophane from Chicago. The observations are as sharp, but this time there's no comedy.

The company are excellent throughout, with fellow Broadway imports Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon defining the harshest of satires as minstrel jesters Messrs Bones and Tambo, their gags making a pastiche of Vaudevilke. Deliberately corny, the clown-like versatility of these men and Domingo's comedy-horror rictus grin seal the brilliance of the genre.

The jarring perversity of Kander & Ebb telling this history story via a minstrel show, only serves to underline the perversion of justice to which Alabama subjugated itself as its rednecks bayed for the Boys' blood. The minstrel show's Interlocutor, 79yo veteran Brit Julian Glover, gives a performance that subtly combines majesty with a brilliantly understated bumbling ineptness. A man who believes passionately in what he perceives to be justice, yet who has also learned his racist views from childhood, carrying a sincerely held belief that black people are worth less than white. Glover's is an acting masterclass.

Elsewhere, excellence drips from this show. Broadway talent James T Lane, resplendent in frock and hat as Ruby Bates, one of the perjurious white women, dances across the stage with a movement that has to be believed. Susan Stroman, who has remained with the show since it's emergence off-Broadway back in 2010 has envisioned the ghastly tale magnificently, never bettered than in the slickly-sickly tap routine Electric Chair. A mention too for the brilliantly delivered tour of Fred Ebb's take on the South's music, played under Phil Cornwell's baton.

First time around, this review failed to pay sufficient respect to the character of The Woman, played by Dawn Hope, onstage almost throughout and saying nothing until the final scene. Consider (or google) Rosa Parks in history and it becomes abundantly clear how much of a cornerstone in the USA's Civil Rights movement The Scottsboro Boys became.

The Scottsboro Boys is unmatched on any London stage. As both a history lesson as well as a display of world-class stagecraft it stands apart. More than unmissable, if you care for humanity and appreciate some of the finest song and dance around, this show has to be seen.

Runs at until Saturday 21st February 2015

Later this month I shall be touring Scottsboro, Alabama and visiting The Scottsboro Boys Museum.

Follow me on Twitter @MrJonathanBaz for my upcoming writing about this visit.

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