One of their final musicals and maybe one of their darkest, John Kander and Fred Ebb divided critics and audiences with “The Scottsboro Boys” when it premiered on Broadway in 2010. Based on the true story about a group of nine young African-American men in 1930’s Alabama who are accused of raping a pair of white women, the musical has a book by David Thompson. The creative team chose to depict this difficult material in the manner of a minstrel show. It is to the credit of the plucky Playhouse on Park theatre in West Hartford that they have chosen to close their season with this audacious and very challenging musical.
Simply staged by director Sean Harris on a nearly bare stage with some straight-back chairs and minimal props, “The Scottsboro Boys” opens like the historical and racially insensitive minstrel shows of old. At the center is the sole white character in the show, Interlocutor (Dennis Holland) who is aided by Mr. Bones (Ivory McKay) and Mr. Tambo (Torrey Linder). The rest of the cast depict the title characters and the two hour performance (without intermission) takes us on a journey that covers their trials, prison and eventual freedom.
Utilizing the format of the minstrel show, Kander and Ebb’s score employs a series of sly songs that both evoke and mock the genre. Telling this tragic tale in the controversial format is irony at its most risky and brilliant. In addition to the lively and trenchant opening number (“Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!) there are gorgeous ballads like “Nothin’” and “Go Back Home”, both sung with fierce feeling and conviction by Troy Valjean Rucker. He is one of only three professional Equity members in the company of thirteen. All the vocals in “The Scottsboro Boys” are worth praising here and the ensemble numbers are especially strong, but several of the younger actors show their inexperience when called upon to act. And pity Renee J. Sutherland’s thankless role as the only woman in the show forced to the sidelines throughout until she is given one line at curtain. The final reveal is powerful (if not predictable) but, unfortunately, you have to watch this distracting character for two hours before discovering her purpose.
Darlene Zoller’s excellent choreography honors Susan Stroman’s original while tailoring it seamlessly to the confines of the POP stage. Mr. Harris has not paced the two hours consistently, but the strong singers in his troupe make up for any lags. The Playhouse, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary, still deserves plenty of credit for presenting this thought-provoking musical with a score that is ably delivered by polished performances. Kander and Ebb’s legacy remains strong.
“The Scottsboro Boys” continues at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through August 4. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 860.523.5900 or visit: www.playhouseonpark.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor and resident critic of WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.