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.

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