Thursday, April 15, 2010

Scottsboro Boys does Injustice to Injustice

The dainty brass tune that floats down from the orchestra platform at the upper left of the auditorium of the Vineyard Theatre seems particularly subdued for this highly anticipated musical from the songwriting duo John Kander and Fred Ebb. When an unnamed woman—who will remain so for the great majority of the one hour and 45 minute production, should you happen to ceaselessly wonder as I did—walks out on stage to a pile of chairs in a pool of mottled blue and yellow lights and sits at the side of a road the audience’s anticipation is not quelled. As she waits there with the sound of buzzing traffic, we anxiously wait with her. Where is the “flash”? The high kicks?

After a few long moments, the performers stream in from the aisles with a surfeit of energy. Grinning and spinning their way to the stage, the room is transformed into a carnivalesque music hall. From behind the footlights steps our requisite master of ceremonies, the only white performer, John Cullum, who is also granted the duty of playing two other administrative positions, a Judge and the Governor of Alabama. The performers swing and stack simple silver chairs to represent a courtroom while boldly proclaiming, “everyone’s a minstrel tonight.” And for this first colorful, physically demanding first number, we believe them.

Reality sets in when the banner announcing the play’s title falls away and a series of ominous drum beats rupture the overwhelming cheer. Those drum beats, which echo throughout the show, also serve as early evidence of the production’s difficult task of staging a musical based on the repeated trials of nine black men accused of raping two white women. History has all but proven their innocence, but it is not the kind of story one would immediately propose as the subject for a song and dance spectacle. I suspect this is why the tone and choreography of the show are so uneven responsibility for which falls on Director and Choreographer, Susan Stroman (“The Producers”).

Stroman’s challenge here lies in making injustice entertaining—and not just any injustice. The trials depicted here are based on one of the most high profile cases in the history of American racism. Unlike Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago” from which this book and production borrow heavily, “Scottsboro” portrays a justice system just as ridiculous but lacking in the theatrical humor associated with courtroom manipulation. Following the rousing minstrel chorus, when the lights come up on the modernist set, I already miss the flash and the kicks. The second number is strangely static, which is ironic, now that the chairs have been arranged as a traveling boxcar.

Even when the show makes a rare return to the kind of big-band, Fosse-inspired style of the opener, the atmosphere is never so lighthearted and hopeful, lacking in vivacity and hindered by a bleak outlook for the story’s characters. When the youngest member of the accused has a freakish nightmare about the electric chair, the accompanying tap dance is appropriately frenetic, bizarre and sinister. This sequence, by the way, has more than enough flash with incessant strobe effects and a sparking chair; “What a fabulous way to die” indeed. “Electric Chair” spends a lot of time and energy on a particularly horrific notion. The number certainly serves the narrative at this point, but goes on just long enough for the audience to question its enjoyment of it.

Still, it’s one of the few moments in the production that sticks out for its spectacle if not innovation. The story gets buried under too-slick staging, repetitive action and a whole mess of derivation. Brandon Victor Dixon’s character, Haywood Patterson has one number which might as well be “Mr. Cellophane” from “Chicago” stuck in the score as a placeholder. In a number more than reminiscent of Billy Flynn’s “Razzle Dazzle”, Forrest McClendon as Samuel Leibowitz sings “Financial Advice”. I suspect they even recycled the confetti. That “Scottsboro” is another Kander and Ebb musical does not excuse this sloppy, unoriginal writing.

What’s even sadder is that “Scottsboro” has an extremely talented cast. Dixon belts a “honeysuckle-sweet” ballad from his prison cell and the ensemble dances are clean and precise. There is a sense, though, that Stroman is doing this all by the book. Much of the problem lies in the subject matter, which does not befit a musical adaptation. While the repeated trials are part of the story, by the seventh, we’re ready for the gavel to fall for the last time. I suppose the prisoners grew tired of waiting too, but there’s not enough here to keep us interested. When the performers dressed as interlocutors come out in blackface and announce the finale, the cumulative effect is disingenuous. At least I knew it would be over soon.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Inside Joss' Dollhouse: From Alpha to Rossum

The book I've contributed to is now available for pre-order on Amazon.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

This is a Bloody Review

The Public Theater’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson comes complete with an audience proviso—and it’s not just that the performance contains fog and strobe effects. “You have to bring some ass to get some ass,” declares Benjamin Walker (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) as President-to-be, Andrew Jackson. “I’m going to put it in you,” he continues. Whether “it” refers to a fast and flashy depiction of history, a rollicking alt-rock score or an intelligent yet ironic sense of humor is ultimately irrelevant. Whatever “it” is, we take it.

Bloody Bloody is one of the most immersive theatrical experiences I’ve had this year and it doesn’t even require audience participation—except for bringing your ass into the theatre—but that it’s hard not to want to participate in the frenzied, pop-infused storytelling. At the launch of the show, the always-appreciated nerdy-girl-in-wheelchair, glasses and thrift store knitwear serves as its narrator. That is, until Jackson shoots her in the neck. Goodbye, framed narrative. Hello, blood. Jackson states, “I think I can take it from here.”

We don’t miss the narrator—though she is played with a tremendous comic awareness by Colleen Werthmann (Gone Missing). Walker and his talented entourage manage to tell the story with color, flair and style on their own. Even while on his knees—representing his childhood—as he witnesses the deaths of his family members by way of Indians’ arrows, Walker commands the stage. Following this tragedy, Jackson becomes a kind of juice box wielding Fess Parker in a coonskin cap as he tries to navigate the wild frontier in the “era of whoop-assing.” As far as history lessons go, Bloody Bloody is incredibly detailed, surprisingly relevant and excitingly modern. As the production unfolds, Bloody Bloody proves itself to be extremely smart political satire in its portrayal of the blood-smeared rocker Jackson and his pursuit of a “brand of maverick egalitarian democracy.” Hip, radical and sexually charged, Bloody Bloody’s brand of politics isn’t just “populism”, it’s, as per the song, “popujizm”.

Adding to the appeal of Jackson’s exploration of populism and his rise to presidency is the visually riveting emo-fantasy world in which the events of his life are played out on stage. The set is an Urban Outfitters accessory whore’s dream. Hipster regalia dazzle and intrigue the eye in every direction. The hazy, rouge-tinted room is accented with chandeliers, framed portraits, plastic-wrapped animal heads, Christmas lights, chandeliers, candles, and the must-have-hipster-accessory, duct tape. With every scene change and music number comes a new discovery; the set is in a constant state of flux with surprising lighting choices and clever design. The overall effect of Bloody Bloody’s staging is eclectic and energetic. This is a rockstar’s paradise—a nexus of cultural appropriation and entrancing social defiance.

The fact that Bloody Bloody relies so much on poaching elements of popular culture is not a hindrance to the historical narrative. Instead, these pieces act as relatable signposts and shorthand for human behavior. Notably, Bloody Bloody contains perhaps the best use of the music of Cher in a dramatic narrative form. It’s a glimpse into an alt-glam pastiche world that works particularly well in its combination of stage spectacle and over-the-top melodrama. There a good number of original, well-crafted, often hilarious songs too accompanied by tight and amusing choreography—when was the last time you saw a dance number with muskets or a good ol’ fashioned bar brawl with barrels? Overall the production’s aesthetic synthesis of modern and 19th century is clear, appropriate to the story and absolutely entertaining. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson proves you can have your history and fuck it too.