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A CurtainUp Review
The Scottsboro Boys

I told the truth. Thereís nothing more I can do. — Haywood
The Scottsboro Boys
Scene from The Scottsboro Boys
The Scottsboro Boys, in Philadelphia Premiere at Philadelphia Theatre Company, tells the sad tale of nine young black men falsely accused of a crime in the South in 1931. It shows how their notorious case engendered early stirrings of social activism. For the story and details of earlier productions see Curtainup's Off-Broadway & Broadway coverage.

An old-style musical with Kander and Ebbís music and lyrics, it has been widely noted that The Scottsboro Boys is reminiscent of their work in Cabaret and Chicago. I was afraid to go see it, thinking it might be disappointing. The Broadway run was pretty short and the production was nominated for 12 Tony Awards, all of which eluded them. But it turns out to be a keeper, and like the two earlier musicals, remarkable for evoking a specific sense of time and locale in a very particular and memorable way.

The idea of staging a terrible miscarriage of justice within a bold minstrel show format boggles the mind — dancing and joking about injustice and ineffable sadness? How do you get your mind around it? But itís a brilliant choice. Like mom adding flavor to bitter medicine to make it go down smooth and sweet, this show makes you laugh and tap your feet. Then, dripping with irony, it makes you pay for the fun as the medicine hits home and does the job.

For PTCís production, Jeff Whiting recreated Susan Stromanís original direction and dy-no-mite choreography. The song list is the same except for "It's Gonna Take Time," which was cut at Stromanís suggestion to keep the action flowing. Unseen music director Eric Ebbenga and the fine pocket orchestra, tucked away somewhere, do right by the music.

This isnít something you can pull together with just any old cast. It takes really talented and disciplined performers, and PTC has them. Some have history with the show and some are new. Casting director Alan Filderman is to be congratulated.

For those who want the details, hereís the lowdown on the cast: Derrick Cobey reprises his Guthrie and Broadway role as Andy Wright. Rodney Hicks, who was Clarence Norris at the Guthrie and on Broadway, plays Haywood Patterson. Kendrick Jones, who plays Willie Roberson, was also Willie in the Vineyard Theatre, Guthrie, and Broadway productions. Forrest McClendon, who is Mr. Tambo and multiple roles, played the same roles in the Vineyard and Guthrie productions, and was nominated for a Tony on Broadway. JC Montgomery is Mr. Bones and multiple roles. He was in the swing cast at the Guthrie, and played the same roles on Broadway. Clinton Roane, who had the same role on Broadway, plays Roy Wright. The rest of the cast are newcomers to the show: Andrew Arrington (as Charles Weems and Victoria Price) Gilbert L. Bailey II (Ozie Powell and Ruby Bates), David Bazemore (Olen Montgomery), Nile Bullock (Eugene Williams) Kaci M. Fannin (The Lady) Ron Holgate (The Interlocutor and other roles), and Eric Jackson (Clarence Norris).

Take a musical with a solid book by David Thompson, splendid tunes and lyrics created by a seasoned team, and add fine performers and dance numbers with spot-on timing. Unleash cognitive dissonance by undergirding it with the consequences of unrelieved injustice and prejudice against blacks, along with swipes at Jews and white people. Then add seeds of resistance and change that will germinate over time. Sing about it. Tap your feet. And youíve got yourself a very unlikely and powerful show.

The Scottsboro Boys
by Book by David Thompson, Music & Lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb
Directed by Jeff Whiting, recreating original direction by Susan Stroman

Cast: Andrew Arrington, Gilbert L. Bailey II, David Bazemore, Nile Bullock, Derrick Cobey, Kaci M. Fannin, Rodney Hicks, Ron Holgate, Eric Jackson, Kendrick Jones, Forrest McClendon, JC Montgomery, Clinton Roane
Choreography: Jeff Whiting ( by Susan Stroman), Associate Choreographer: Eric Santagata
Music Director: Eric Ebbenga
Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt
Lighting Design: Ken Billington
Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James
Sound Design: Peter Hylenski
Jan 20 Ė Feb 19, 2012
I hour, 50 minutes with no intermission
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 02/09 performance. Suzanne Roberts Theatre. South Broad and Lombard Sts, Philadelphia.
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