By Wendy Rosenfield
FOR THE INQUIRER
Let’s make one thing clear: The Scottsboro Boys is not a minstrel show. It’s a musical, yes, the last by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb (book by David Thompson). It revives the characters and conventions of minstrelsy — there’s even a tap dance — and it’s plenty entertaining. But the difference is, this tale about a very real miscarriage of justice uses every element of the minstrel form, including that gruesome tap dance, performed before an electric chair, to highlight the viciousness and humiliations of racism.
Philadelphia Theatre Company, producing the show’s first post-Broadway incarnation, brings with it six members of the original cast, Susan Stroman’s arresting original direction and choreography (re-created by Jeff Whiting), Beowulf Borritt’s minimalist set (three wooden frames and a tangle of metal chairs), and Toni-Leslie James’ rough-hewn costumes. It also features some homegrown talent — including Eric Ebbenga, who provides sharp musical direction, and several Philly-based actors, including Forrest McClendon, a standout among standouts, returning to his Tony-nominated role as Mr. Tambo. This is handy, because I fully expect the show to sweep the 2012 Barrymore Awards, and it’s always gratifying when the cast is around to accept in person.
So, who were the boys? Well, for starters, they were indeed boys, nine of them, ranging in age from 12 to 19. All had the misfortune to be riding a train through Alabama in 1931, at the same time a pair of white prostitutes talked their way out of a solicitation charge. The women accused them of rape, and despite eight trials, significant public outrage, and one recanted accusation, the boys grew into men behind bars.
Fans of Kander and Ebb will recognize elements of their other work here, not just in its challenging subject, but also in the way the rousing “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!” recalls Cabaret’s “Willkommen,” or “Alabama Ladies” references Billy Flynn’s manipulation of Roxie Hart in Chicago’s “We Both Reached for the Gun.”
Fans of the Broadway production will notice that this cast functions more as an ensemble, and that Rodney Hicks brings more boyishness to the role of Haywood Patterson than did Joshua Henry, a big, imposing actor. The result is that the song “Nothin’ ” — previously a turning point in which Haywood, the boys’ de facto leader, realizes the extent to which he is powerless — makes a smaller overall impression, but also serves to equalize both the boys’ suffering and their friendship.
Another change: The relative intimacy of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre affords a closer look at every element, physical and thematic, at what I believe will ultimately be considered one of the great American musicals.
Presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets, through Feb. 19. Tickets: $51 to $74. Information: 215-985-0420 or PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org.