Archive for October 11th, 2010

Review – The Scottsboro Boys – Lyceum Theater (New York City)

October 11, 2010

Of all of the shows opening in New York this autumn, the one I was most excited about was Scottsboro Boys. Not Elf, not Pee Wee Herman, not Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – but a (for all intents and purposes) new musical by the brilliant team of Kander and Ebb. I couldn’t wait to have the chance to hear their musicality and wit applied anew (albeit somewhat after the fact given that Ebb died in 2004, leaving the lyrics behind). Frankly, the chance to see this show was a cause for hootin’ and hollerin’ and practically reason enough to support my pilgrimage across the pond to the Great White Way (though I was mostly going to see ballet). Previews were starting the last three days of my visit, and by gum, I was gonna go!

Four days later, I’m still finding it a bit difficult to summarize the show in a review-worthy way. In its offensiveness, it’s right up there with Jerry Springer:The Musical – a show I adored for its high-kicking, multi-racial chorus line of Ku Klux Klansmen at the end of act one. But watching a play that digs so hard at America’s racist past without feeling uncomfortable was pretty much impossible on the face, and add to it shovelfulls of creepy “ole time” images (such as black men in white face and an actor scratching his head like he was a gorilla) with a thick helping of anti-Semitism on top (what was the name of that song, “Don’t Take That Jew Money?”* – not one I’ll be singing at the piano bar any time soon), and you, too, may be asking yourself if this is a show worth sitting through (like the African-American audience woman I queried at the end of the show who was ready to walk after 20 minutes). I had to ask myself: if we support this show as audience members, are we supporting the racist and anti-semitic messages of its characters and of several aspects of the production?

This question is further complicated by the obvious anti-racist message: the whole point of the show is that the nine black men accused of rape in 1930s Alabama were individuals with hopes and dreams, talent and ambition. Our ability to tolerate the evil attitudes of the society surrounding them is somewhat tempered by having all of the roles played by these men (other than the near-invisible “interlocutor”): thus the sherrif who beats them and the women who accuse them are all black men, a situation which, I think, just barely manages to temper the evil words that come out of their mouths. Still, when the Alabama attorney goes on an anti-Northern, anti-Jewish rant … suddenly I was brought back to the history of enmity between these two communities, and I didn’t find it the least bit comic. It was ameliorated by the fact that the character being reviled was quite decent, just as much as his defendents (if clearly suffering from his own superiority and racist issues, per one of his songs), but … nails on a chalkboard, I tell you. Letting the nine men rip apart a song about the sweet old South – and how crappy it really was if you weren’t white – didn’t do enough to sugar over these other vile words.

Being uncomfortable really does seem to be at the heart of this show. The actors were the creme de la creme, and I was thrilled to see, finally, a stage full of black talent (how long has it been?), in a show that really let them show off their skills as performers. The show has great singing, a horrifying (yet well-executed) tap dancing routine, and an execution that lets the actors display their range as they (nearly all) play several roles. I was disappointed that the music didn’t show the lyrical wit of other works by Kander and Ebb …. yet there was no doubt that what I saw was extremely powerful. I’m not familiar with the conceit of a minstrel show, so I can’t say to what extent it held up (or held a warped mirror up to) the tradition.

Still …. when I thnk back on all of the musicals I’ve seen this year, Scottsboro Boys will stand out for many reasons. I’m still out on whether it’s a must-see or better-to-avoid. Yet, as someone who’s dedicated to theater as an art form, I am leaning toward see, because anything that makes me this uncomfortable and sparks as much discussion as this show did is probably better faced and dealt with than avoided.

* Actually the song is called “Financial Advice,” but, like “Dance 10, Looks 3” it’s unlikely to be known by its actual title.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on October 8, 2010. For another view, see David Finkle’s review in the Huffington Post or Steve On Broadway’s review of the Guthrie production. The show is booking at least through the end of February, 2011. For a deeper analysis of what this show is trying to do, please see Patrick Healy’s New York Times article.)