The Scottsboro Boys, a product of the prodigious team of John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago), is no sunny, hum-along musical. The final collaboration between the two before Ebb passed away in 2004, The Scottsboro Boys is based on the true story of nine black teen boys who in 1931 in Alabama were accused of the rape of two white women. It’s also staged as a musical within a minstrel show, an intentionally subversive touch that pulls no sociopolitical punches. One might have foreseen that in spite of its success at Minneapolis’ noted Guthrie Theatre and an Off-Broadway stage, the show closed at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway after only 29 previews and 49 regular performances.
A year and a half after its disappointing reception on the Great White Way, The Scottsboro Boys is getting new life at the Old Globe Theatre, again under the skilled direction of Susan Stroman (The Producers), who also created the show’s choreography. David Thompson (Steel Pier, Flora the Red Menace) wrote the book. Even with a fresh start and all the heavyweight talent behind it, The Scottsboro Boys is still a difficult and painful story to tell to music, and its intentions to enlighten, shock and parody, all in one two-hour act, make for a bumpy ride.
Its potency is in the Scottsboro Boys’ ensemble numbers, including “Shout!”, “Chain Gang” and both “Make Friends With the Truth” and “You Can’t Do Me,” those two led by the charismatic Clifton Duncan as Haywood Patterson. He is the story’s conscience and its beacon of courage. On the other hand, numbers such as “Electric Chair,” in which the youngest of the accused Scottsboro Boys (Nile Bullock) is taunted and given a taste of electrification by two “comically” devious prison guards, are uneasy. And the arrival of the accused youths’ second attorney Samuel Leibowitz, belting out “That’s Not the Way We Do Things,” is a spirited but obvious crowd pleaser.
This Scottsboro Boys may strain for a consistent tone much of the way, but it soars as it nears its finish, with a minstrel-makeup sequence that is both daring and defiant, and a quietly stirring passing of the civil rights torch to Rosa Parks.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.