The Scottsboro Boys, SF

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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‘The Scottsboro Boys’

Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb
Book by David Thompson
Choreography and direction by Susan Stroman
American Conservatory Theater (ACT), San Francisco
June 27-July 22, 2012

Sometimes the hype is so high you slip into your theater seat doomed to disappointment (case in point: “The Producers” once you were finally able to get a ticket). But once in a while a show exceeds your wildest expectations. Welcome to “The Scottsboro Boys,” a wonderfully executed musical that actually has something to say.

The current incarnation of the 2011 smash Broadway hit is a co-production of ACT and San Diego’s Old Globe Theater but the original spirit is preserved beautifully by choreographer Susan Stroman, who also directs. No way can this be taken as a rerun.

The story, based on shameful historical fact, tells of nine African American teenagers who are pulled off a freight train one day in 1931 and accused of raping two white women (actually hookers, lying to save their own skins) who were also riding the rails. They are stopped in Scottsboro, Ala., thrown in jail and subjected to various abuses (including beatings, solitary and a stint on death row) before the first of their many trials.

The Scottsboro Boys became a cause célèbre among liberals but, as their case dragged into the mid-40s, they were largely forgotten by a country preoccupied with war. Those who finally got out couldn’t get jobs, turned to drink or killed themselves. One, Ozie Powell (James T. Lane), suffered permanent brain damage as a result of a fight with a prison guard. Another, the defiant Haywood Patterson, tried to escape twice, served the hardest time of any of the “boys” and died in prison at the age of 39, but not before writing a book about his experience. The focus of the show, he is magnificently portrayed by the good-looking, strong-voiced Clifton Duncan.

Strange stuff for a musical you say? Well, the genius of “Scottsboro” is in the telling. The songwriting team of Kander and Ebb (“Chicago,” “Cabaret,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) along with book writer David Thompson conceived their tale as an old time minstrel show and it succeeds on many levels: entertainment, biting satire and the pathos of injustice that is all too real. Not that “the boys” were angels before they were jailed. If you read their actual biographies, you learn of abuse, poverty, illiteracy, and petty crime. But one of them, Eugene Williams, played by the adorable and talented Nile Bullock, was only 12.

But don’t think that, because of the subject, the show is a downer — quite the opposite. Kander and Ebb’s songs (the best of them smacking of the “Chicago” score) are infectious, if not memorable. The dancing and staging is impeccable and, if Duncan is sensational, everyone else is truly fine, playing a variety of roles as well as minstrels and the “boys” themselves. The only exception may be Hal Linden, the only well-known name in the cast, who plays the traditionally white role of The Interlocutor (a kind of MC of minstrelsy), as well as an assortment of lawmen and judges, affecting a Southern accent that sounds as if a set of false teeth had slipped out of place. Jared Joseph and JC Montgomery are outstanding as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, the funnymen of the minstrel troupe. Montgomery also takes the role of Samuel Leibowitz, the New York lawyer who gets his clients reprieved from death row and actually gets some of them out and/or paroled. His introductory solo makes him sound a lot like Billy Flynn in “Chicago,” but that’s not his fault.

Lighting, especially in an “electric chair” scene, is stunning. This is definitely a show of Broadway caliber. The only problem is its length. At nearly two hours, it would have benefited from an intermission. There even was a logical place for one about halfway through. A show like this wouldn’t lose any impetus from allowing its viewers to stretch their legs and get a drink of water. It would only make a good thing a little bit better.

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