The Scottsboro Boys
Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, book by David Thompson
Young Vic Theatre
The Scottsboro Boys hits the bull’s-eye thanks to an intoxicating clash between genre and story. The idea of using broad musical comedy to tell a tragic tale turns out to be a stroke of genius.
The starting point for Kander and Ebb, the pair behind Chicago and Cabaret who are rarely shy of addressing serious issues, was a wish to bring back into the public eye one of America's most shaming scandals.
Rather than merely narrating the story of nine innocent, young colored boys incarcerated for up to 21 years, they chose to orchestrate David Thompson's compelling biographical book in a slapstick Vaudeville style.
This sounds unlikely and a potential recipe for disaster but so well is the idea realised that Susan Stroman's Anglo-American production, which proved so successful at the Young Vic a year ago, has deservedly found itself a home in the West End.
Beowulf Boritt's simple staging, using little more than chairs and boards enhanced by spectacular lighting from Ken Billington, has had to be redesigned for the proscenium arch. As a result, it can feel more distant but is still compelling, helped by the warmth of performances which go beyond the stage as the actors cavort in the aisles from the moment the lights come up.
The tone is set early by Julian Glover playing The Interlocutor or ringmaster, alongside the hilarious double act of Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon (both stars of the original Broadway production), a pair of clowns who make us laugh at iniquity in the face and, by doing so, give dignity to the victims of an unbelievable injustice.
The Scottsboro Boys were young men in desperate need of work in 1931 during the Depression. In Scottsboro, Alabama, they were hauled from a train and accused of rape by a couple of good time girls, themselves threatened by imprisonment.
The trial that followed was a joke, as were the seven that followed, every one finding the men guilty in the teeth of the evidence.
Eventually, four were released in a deal that saved the state's face at the expense of their friends' freedom.
Sadly, none really did well after their terrible ordeal, as those freed soon suffered lonely and painful deaths while the others eventually left prison either occupying coffins or as broken men.
An ensemble of actors play the prisoners led by Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson, so good a soul that when asked to tell a lie by pleading guilty he chooses the truth leading to twenty-one years in prison for a crime that he didn’t commit. The sweet-voiced actor's evening peaks with the bittersweet but beautifully sung “Make Friends with the Truth”.
The actors work hard, transforming themselves from their primary roles into a variety of other characters both male and female, often causing impromptu hilarity. They also sing well and dance their socks off to the delight of the audience.
All of this could be grim but thanks to Kander and Ebb, who fill the show with catchy tunes in various styles, complemented by Miss Stroman's trademark choreography, the evening is upbeat but intellectually challenging throughout its two-hour duration.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher