BWW Review: THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS at Playhouse On Park
Live theatre creates a connection with the audience in a way unlike any other medium. Sometimes this connection builds excitement, sometimes it sparks compassion, and on other occasions, it forces you to confront something uncomfortable or difficult to create greater awareness and understanding. The creative team of John Kander and Fred Ebb did this with many of their musicals over their career together. In CABARET they illustrated the rise of Nazi Germany, and in CHICAGO brought attention to the role the media plays in sensationalizing criminals. But in one of their last collaborations together, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, Kander and Ebb not only approached a difficult subject matter (9 young African-American men in Alabama falsely accused of rape in the 1930's), but they did so using one of the most distasteful artforms in American history, the minstrel show. So, it is a bold move for West Hartford's Playhouse on Park to offer this difficult production as the final performance in its tenth season.
As noted, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS is presented as a minstrel show, similar in construct and format as the many shows that played during the timeframe the play is set. It begins with the performers, in a semi-circle as most minstrel shows began, with a white "Interlocutor" (Dennis Holland) who acts as emcee for the evening. At the end of the semi-circle are the traditional roles of Mr. Bones (Ivory McKay) and Mr. Tambo (Torrey Linder). The cast performs their opening number "Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!" and the Interlocutor begins the evening with a phrase taken directly from the minstrel format "Gentlemen, be seated!" The story then begins with the boys asking if they can tell the story truthfully for once, and over the course of the two hours (with no intermission) the cast weaves the tale of these 9 young men, strangers, whose lives were destroyed by false accusations, racism, and a "justice" system stacked against them.
David Thompson's book for THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS takes a long and complex story, one with multiple trials, 9 protagonists and many players (including the Communist Party) and summarizes the story of these men quite well. Having not been familiar with the details of the plot prior to this performance, I was able to follow it relatively easily. John Kander and Fred Ebb's music is good, but not necessarily their best. It fits the style of the minstrel show (complete with cakewalk and tambourines) but because of this concept, comes across as a bit forgettable. For me, as someone born and raised in the south, it was difficult at times to watch, which I am sure impacted my opinion of the music as well. Sean Harris' direction is good, though there were some choices that felt a bit safe, especially for a play that pushes the boundaries as much as THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS.
From a performance perspective, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS is a heavily ensemble driven show with a few standout roles. This was evident in Playhouse on Park's production. Dennis Holland's Interlocutor is subtly menacing, in his Kentucky colonel suit and with a strained smile. Torrey Linder, as Mr. Tambo gives a solid performance, playing off of Ivory McKay's Mr. Bones. Speaking of Mr. Bones, McKay's performance in this role is stellar. He is fluid, funny, menacing and likeable at the same time. Watching him perform this role is like watching a master class in facial expressions and was a true standout. Speaking of other standouts - while the cast does a commendable job across the board, Troy Valjean Rucker, as Haywood Patterson shines. In particular, his song late in the show "You Can't Do Me" is heartbreaking and well-executed and he captures the rage and injustice of the role very well.
From a creative perspective, Darlene Zoller's choreography is strong, and works well with the minstrel style, and Melanie Guerin does a great job as musical director, bringing out some amazing harmonies from the cast in various group numbers. David Lewis' scenic design is simple, but effective, and Vilinda McGregor's costumes were completely appropriate for the setting and the time period.
Overall, Playhouse on Park's THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS is a challenging, yet important production. I left the show feeling informed, slightly uncomfortable, but pleased that I had the chance to see this strong performance of this lesser known, and rarely performed Kander and Ebb musical. So, while you may not be familiar with the show, I encourage you to give this piece a try.
THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS runs at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, CT through August 4th. For more information, call 860-523-5900 ext. 10 or visit www.PlayhouseOnPark.org. Playhouse on Park is located at 244 Park Road, West Hartford, CT 06119
Photos courtesy Meredith Longo.
Top Photo: The cast of THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS
Mid Photo 1: Torrey Linder as Mr. Tambo and cast