This past Wednesday night I took in the evening performance of The Scottsboro Boys at American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, CA. This show garnered 12 Tony nominations including Best Musical, yet won none. Maybe Broadway just was not ready for this poignant, powerful historical piece; but San Francisco sure is! The absolute thrill of this show is how the material can strike most anyone at any age of any background. I, for one, was extremely touched by what Kander and Ebb have written for the stage and by how Susan Stroman brought the script to life through The Scottsboro Boys story.
The Scottsboro Boys is a minstrel-style musical that tells the story of the real Scottsboro Boys that went through a torturous 1930’s and beyond. We are introduced to the boys, Interlocutor, and The Lady in typical minstrel style with tambourines and costumes and all in a rousing one, two punch in the songs “Minstrel March” and “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey” to start the show. Susan Stroman’s choreography and staging of these numbers give a very upbeat, exciting feeling throughout the theater. However, as the minstrel boys dive into telling the real version of the Scottsboro Boys, we see that it is not as “funny, and humorous” as the Interlocutor intends it to be.
(Clifton Duncan (Haywood Patterson) and company, Photo credit: Stark Insider)
Clifton Duncan (Haywood Patterson) leads this beautifully talented cast with so much power and strength that you forget these men are actors portraying real people. The sympathy, and for some, empathy, is a real thing for the audience to feel during the show. Duncan’s soaring vocals and deep understanding of his character make songs like “Commencing in Chattanooga,” “Make Friends With the Truth,” and “You Can’t Do Me” stand out performances for this cast. Alongside Duncan is a professional job well done by Eric Jackson (Clarence Norris) who’s presence alone is enough to shutter fear but respect for this man’s talents and intimate portrayal of the young man he is bringing tribute to on stage. Hal Linden (The Interlocutor) is a great leading man himself. Being the only white performer in the cast; he plays his various roles with resonance and stature that cause the audience to really think about their own country’s history regarding how whites treated/treat blacks. Linden is a strong enough performer to give proper nuance and dedication to each of his roles. Whether it be the Governor of Alabama, or a less than sympathetic judge; Linden gives the performance of a lifetime showcasing his versatility as an actor.
( L to R: Jared Joseph (Mr. Bones), Hal Linden (The Interlocutor), JC Montgomery (Mr. Tambo), Photo credit: sf-theatreblog)
What makes this piece so vivid and poignant is how all of the white characters are portrayed by the boys themselves. Clifton Oliver and James T. Lane each embody the two white girls who accused the boys of raping them; Oliver as Victoria Price and Lane as Ruby Bates. Each have their time to shine in “Alabama Ladies” and “Never Too Late.” These two performers are able to wholey show the white girls, although exaggerated a bit to keep true to the minstrel-esque style, and just how these girls were viewed by society. Not to be upstaged, Jared Joseph (Mr. Bones) and JC Montgomery (Mr. Tambo) do a fine job as the side-kicks to this minstrel show. Between the two of them they play racist cops to idiotic lawyers, to an educated Jewish lawyer (Samuel Lebowitz), and torturous prison guards. Proving to be more than just a good period character actor, Montgomery shows his vocal power in his turn at “That’s Not the Way We Do Things.”
(Cast of The Scottsboro Boys, Photo credit: Huffington Post)
The spectacular factor of this show; though, is the staging and choreography. Susan Stroman has found a versatile cast that can do anything and everything when it comes to giving the audience a visually appealing show. “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey” is a show opening show stopper. “Electric Chair” allows for the youngest member of the cast, Nile Bullock (playing Eugene Williams) to show off his tapping skills while giving us a vivid image of what it would be like to look at the very chair that could kill you. The staging is fluid and intentional, with the 9 man ensemble working as a unit rather than as individuals. Stroman brings a delightful energy when appropriate, allowing for some contrasting intimate moments when the material calls for it.
Not a lot of technical glamour needed to make this show pop. The set is easy with some chairs, a couple of wood planks, and a few drops. Lighting is undisguised in order to give the audience the image of a jail cell, a train, a courtroom, or the minstrel theatre. Basically, you have a cast who drive the show based on their story telling abilities, utilized through song and dance (like any good minstrel show should be). The Scottsboro Boys will make you laugh, clap, tear up, and really think about our judicial system and its history. Sounds like your typical Kander and Ebb piece, right? Exactly. The Scottsboro Boys plays through July 22, so don’t delay in seeing this show if you haven’t already. It’s a show worth seeing, so GO SEE THE SHOW!