Sunday, April 20, 2014
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Review: "The Scottsboro Boys"

Philadelphia Theatre Company's production of this great Kander and Ebb musical benefits from its theater's intimate size, says critic Wendy Rosenthal.

Review: "The Scottsboro Boys"

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.

About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.


Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.


Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.


Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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