What do we do with a drama that wants to be a musical and a musical that wants to be a drama? That’s a question that John Kander and Fred Ebb, who were charged with writing the music and lyrics for “The Scottsboro Boys,” along with David Thompson, who had to write the book, probably asked themselves more than once, and it’s a tough question to answer. Did they resolve the difficulties? Well, that’s for you to judge if you travel up to West Hartford to Playhouse on Park, which is currently staging this hybrid musical under the direction of Sean Harris. Your response may well be a qualified one, for there are shining moments in this musical that, at the same time, also feels a heavy need to make a statement. Thus, your impressions may shift as you delight in some of the sprightlier numbers or feel depression set in as the statements become somewhat didactic.
Who were the Scottsboro Boys? They were nine teenage black men who were arrested on spurious charges of the rape of two white women on a train in 1931. This was in Alabama, so the charges were, well, charged with racism and there were calls for the nine to be lynched. Instead, they went on trial and were found guilty by an all-white male jury. There was an immediate outcry of injustice, especially from elements of the American Communist Party. There were numerous other trials, with one of the women, Ruby Bates, recanting her accusations, but that was not enough to change the verdict of “Guilty” in the ensuing trials. The trials and incarceration of the nine went on for years, with the Supreme Court having to overturn the guilty verdicts twice. It is reported that Harper Lee drew on the trials of the nine young men when she came to write To Kill a Mockingbird.
This is heavy stuff, so one can easily imagine what Kander, Ebb and Thompson were faced with when they decided to create the musical, which opened in 2010 on Broadway but ran for less than two months; it found greater success in London. One of the decisions the creative team made was to frame much of the musical as a minstrel show, with the underlying conceit that these nine young men were dancing to the white man’s tune. This works, up to a point, but the irony is that the black actors are, in fact, dancing to the white man’s tunes, and much of the entertainment to be derived from the show is in watching these minstrel numbers, creatively choreographed by Darlene Zoller. Thus, audience members may be of two minds about what they are watching: on the one hand they are enjoying the musical numbers but, on the other, they understand that this is all meant to be a critique of racism. What’s an audience to do?
There’s no doubt that the cast that Harris et al. has assembled is outstanding, with many of the cast members doing double- and triple-duty when they are playing the accused young men as well as members of the minstrel show, with Dennis Holland as the Interlocutor (think emcee) and Ivory McKay as Mr. Bones and Torrey Linder as Mr. Tambo. Near the end of the show, after Bates has recanted her accusations, there is an especially chilling number, “Financial Advice,” superbly performed by Ivory McKay as Alabama’s attorney general. In the song, the attorney general suggests that Bates changed her testimony because she was bought off…by Jewish money, given that the defense attorney, Samuel Leibowitz, is a New York Jew. The song combines racism with anti-Semitism and can’t help but make audience members shift in their seats a bit.
As one is watching the production, attention is drawn to a woman, book in hand, wandering around the fringe of the thrust stage. Who is she? What is her function? Although the audience may have suspicions, her function is revealed only in the last moment of the play. Although it’s meant to be trenchant, the reveal seems a bit superfluous. If the audience hasn’t gotten the message already, then the reveal is supposed to be an “Aha!” moment – “Now I see what all of this was leading to.” If it takes this reveal to make the point, then people weren’t listening and watching for the two-hour run of the show.
It’s interesting, and somewhat daring, that the Playhouse decided to schedule this rather dark show at the end of the season. Often, theaters want their last production of the season to “leave ‘em laughin’ and singin’,” which this show definitely doesn’t do. Kudos to the Playhouse’s management for taking the risk. Hopefully, the enthusiastic opening-night audience will translate into good word-of-mouth to fill the theater through the end of the run. The performances alone are worth the price of admission, and if you don’t mind being challenge a bit and, at moments, made to feel a tad uncomfortable, then an evening with the nine Scottsboro Boys will, in the end, be rewarding.
“The Scottsboro Boys” runs through August 4. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org