Wednesday, April 12, 2017

reviews - THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS - Phoenix Theatre / Black Theatre Troupe

the cast
photo by Reg Madison Photography
highlights from local critics reviews - (click link at bottom of each review to read complete review)

Click here for more information on this production that runs through April 30.

"...the show succeeds in making the tragedy that follows appear all the more horrendous. It’s the story of The Scottsboro Boys....on Broadway received mixed reviews and closed after just 49 performances. It was later revived in Philadelphia with (Susan) Stroman’s original work replicated by director/choreographer Jeff Whiting, and it’s Whiting’s production that valley audiences can now see at Phoenix Theatre...Writer David Thompson’s book gets the rules of the minstrel show and the historic details of the Scottsboro Boys trial right. After falsely accused of rape by two white girls, the nine black boys ...were found guilty by an all-white jury. ...As for its theatrical style of presentation, Kander and Ebb revisit a burlesque setting that made their Chicago work so well...Burlesque presentation is now a dehumanizing Minstrel show......incorporating its only white cast member, the Interlocutor (Mike Lawler) – a kind of Uncle Sam Master of Ceremonies – and the two end men who double in the skits, Mr. Bones (Trent Armand Kendall) and Mr. Tambo (Walter Belcher)...They joke in broad, bellowed, in-your-face, turns to the audience, though what laughter they may deliver chokes in the back of your throat. The remaining ten members of the cast are the talented nine boys themselves, lead by a charismatic Nathan Andrew Riley as Haywood, plus one female role credited as simply Lady (Sahsa Wordlaw) who for the most part hovers silently around the action...Her true identity is revealed in the closing second of the show, and it comes like a punch. Kander and Ebb’s score hits home in the way it intends, upbeat with showbiz sparkle and flair, and memorable catchy hooks, but all with a disturbing, lyrical thump. ...But the real tragedy is reserved for the grand we discover what eventually happened to the boys and how nine lives were unimaginably ruined. ...Director Jeff Whiting’s The Scottsboro Boys is a superior production, one you should see. It further enhances Phoenix’s deserved reputation of delivering outstanding, professional musical theatre,...It’s content and style is unsettling. Rather than having been entertained, you leave uncomfortable..But that’s its intention,...there is no looking away. The story of The Scottsboro Boys needs to live on, and those ghosts of the past in their minstrel show setting deserve to haunt us for the rest of our lives." -David Appleford, Valley Screen and Stage (click here to read the complete review)

"Songwriting duo John Kander and Fred Ebb never shied away from controversial topics. ...One of the last musicals they wrote together, The Scottsboro Boys, deals with real-life racial injustice in 1930s Alabama. Phoenix Theatre and Black Theatre Troupe present the area premiere of the show in a crackerjack production teeming with a talented cast and spotless direction from the associate director of the original Broadway show. It amounts to an intriguing and provocative, though not entirely perfect, musical endeavor. The Scottsboro Boys features a minstrel show theme and a "show within a show" context to present the real story of nine young African-American men who were falsely convicted of raping two white women on a train near Scottsboro, Alabama. ...The use of the minstrel show theme has its merits, especially when it is turned on its ear with black actors comically playing the majority of the white characters in the story in direct comparison to how white people wore black face make-up in these shows to evoke comical caricatures of African Americans. However, there are a few things that don't quite land. The use of corny jokes and comical numbers is an odd choice to detail the pain and suffering of this group of men, especially when the serious non-musical scenes on the train and in their cell are so well written and give us a direct view into the feelings, pain, confusion and suffering of these teenage boys...having them sing and dance out their feelings in "razzle dazzle" numbers, while entertaining, seems slightly strange. Fortunately, the ballads in the show are superb and work well to flesh out their suffering. Since this isn't a feel good musical, the discomfort that many of the moments in the show bring does make the audience squirm appropriately...which, I believe, is exactly what the creators had in mind. While the show clearly presents shocking moments and imagery from the minstrel shows...there is still a bit of a disconnect between the 80-year-old story and the truly unfortunate predicament these boys suffered through and how we are supposed to process what we are witnessing. To truly become a shocking musical that makes everyone realize the importance and relevance of these individuals, we should feel guilty while we are laughing at what we are seeing, catching ourselves for finding humor in the racism that prevailed throughout the minstrel shows. But the minstrel jokes are so tired that you groan instead of laugh. On top of the minstrel theme there is also an odd framework that focuses on a quiet black woman waiting for a bus that, while we clearly understand by the end of the show who this woman is, doesn't quite relate to the show unless you do an internet search to help you connect the dots....The cast is incredibly gifted and form a superb ensemble with each actor playing various roles and getting many moments to shine. As Haywood, the young man the show focuses most of its attention on, Nathan Andrew Riley provides a passionate vigor and refined sense of humanity, even during the unfortunate incarceration when it seems all hope is lost...Seeing injustice laid out directly in front of you is difficult (even in a musical) and knowing that there is still suffering and hardships like this happening today makes the musical poignant—the entire "black lives matters" movement which happened after this show premiered on Broadway proves that the show still resonates. The Scottsboro Boys is one of those musicals that has many things that work for it and make it a rich, emotional journey about a true story that cries out for justice, but there is just one small piece missing that would turn it into a truly brilliant work of art and make every audience member have a deep connection to the harsh reality of these nine boys' experience. At the end of the show the boys' attorney tells Haywood that he should write down his thoughts and experiences. Haywood says to him, "Who's gonna learn from it?" It is clear that we all still have much to learn from the experience of these nine boys whose lives were all destroyed by a single lie." -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

"The story of nine black teenagers falsely accused of rape and sentenced to death in the Jim Crow South no doubt is unlikely fodder for a Broadway musical....If anyone could pull this trick off, it would be composer John Kander and (the late) lyricist Fred Ebb, of “Cabaret” and “Chicago” fame. But their solution to the storytelling challenge — framing an outrageous tragedy as a racist minstrel show complete with a climactic application of blackface — is irony so bitter that it may be impossible to swallow. For the audience and possibly even for the performers....The nearly all-African-American cast is led by Nathan Andrew Riley, who is a riveting presence in the role of Haywood, an illiterate laborer with a fierce but quiet dignity that makes him the moral center in an immoral universe. ...But it’s the minstrel-show conceit that makes “The Scottsboro Boys” a tightrope walk for the cast, and the perfect balance may be impossible to strike....The problem, and it’s a huge one, is that these jokes never quite land....And it absolutely needs to. The laughs are meant to be uncomfortable, even excruciating. They are there to make the audience complicit....We watch the story of injustice with horror and revulsion but are left with the refuge of believing that it has nothing to do with us....“The Scottsboro Boys” is an acidic condemnation of America’s racist past that’s tough to sit through. This is history that must be faced. But a spoonful of musical-theater sugar isn’t enough to make the medicine go down." Kerry Lengel, Arizona Republic (click here to read the complete review)

"...SCOTTSBORO BOYS recounts the travails of nine such casualties of a society and system that failed them in a most unconventional but illuminating manner. ...John Kander and Fred Ebb ...adopted the minstrel show as their sword of choice not only to peel away at the hypocrisy and brutality of Jim Crow but also to probe the depth and texture of the young men's pain and suffering.
In 1931, Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charlie Weems, Eugene Williams, and brothers Andy and Roy Wright hopped a freight train in Alabama on a quest to find employment. Their journey was sidetracked when they were falsely accused of raping two white women. ...Director/choreographer Jeff Whiting embraces minstrelsy as metaphor while never allowing the buffoonery of the authorities to overshadow the desperation of the inmates. It's a perfect balance, amplified by performances that leave you unsettled, breathless, and inspired....Walter Belcher (Mr. Tambo) and Trent Armand Kendall (Mr. Bones) are delightful and engaging in their exuberant and clownish parodies of lawmen, guards, and executioners. Yet, for each chuckle they may evoke, there is an equally unsettling discomfort that comes with the knowledge of their characters' abuses. On a stage whose set (Douglas Clarke) is simple and intimate, the clever reconfiguration of a dozen metallic chairs transports the characters from boxcars to courthouses to prison cells. Every element in this production from Michael J. Eddy's lighting to Adriana Diaz's costumes and Jeff Kennedy's musical direction weaves together seamlessly to create the appropriate sense of the moment.... " Herbert Paine, Broadway World (click here to read the complete review)

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