SpeakEasy delivers a sizzling ‘Scottsboro Boys’
BOSTON – The SpeakEasy Stage Company has no fear when it comes to remounting and repurposing Broadway musicals for its own devices, even the less successful ones.
SpeakEasy mounted “Big Fish,” which had 34 previews and 98 regular performances on Broadway in 2013, in 2015, and last February presented for the second time “Violet,” which ran for several months on Broadway in 2014.
So it should have come as no surprise that SpeakEasy Artistic Director Paul Daigneault decided to take on “The Scottsboro Boys,” a noble failure that was nominated for 12 Tonys in 2010 but had a very short run on Broadway.
Daigneault admitted in press notes the play “scared the living hell out of me.” The final work of the renowned songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”) – Ebb died in 2004 before they had completed their work, so Kander finished the lyrics – focuses on an iconic moment in the battle for civil rights, an injustice that exposed a judicial system that was so corrupt that it sparked huge demonstrations across the country.
Daigneault and company have done right by Kander, Ebb and book writer David Thompson and the show’s original director/choreographer, Susan Stroman. “The Scottsboro Boys” is a searing, at times horrifying, but always engrossing piece of work.
In Alabama in 1931, nine African-American men (and young boys) were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train. Thrown in jail, they escaped with their lives when attempts to lynch them failed. They were later tried a number of times for the same crimes, with several of the convictions being overturned even as the trials themselves revealed the truth about the judicial system in effect at the time.
Eight of the nine Scottsboro Boys were sentenced to death by an Alabama judge after they were convicted by all-white juries and although none were executed,. all served time in prison, some for many years, and the effects on them were lasting and deadly.
How Kander, Ebb and Thompson chose to tell their story is what makes “The Scottsboro Boys” so different. Rather than a linear description of events, the show unfolds as a scathing song and dance revue, a minstrel show if you will, turned on its head.
Russell Garrett is The Interlocutor, the very picture of a fine Southern gentleman, whose job is is to be the master of ceremonies for the storytelling that will follow under his guidance, as he informs us that “the boys” will be dancing and singing for us.
He will be aided and abetted by Brandon G. Geeen – so excellent in Company One’s “An Octoroon” last season – as Mr. Tambo and Maurice Emmanuel Parent (what can’t he do?) as Mr. Bones, a tag-team duo of minstrel artists called upon to play a variety of roles in telling the story of the Scottsboro Boys.
While minstrel shows featured white or black actors in blackface, this show turns it on its head, as Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones spout off-color one-liners before taking on the roles of various white characters, including vicious guards and sheriffs, incompetent lawyers or, in Green’s case, famed civil rights attorney Samuel Leibowitz.
De’Lon Grant has a showcase role as Hayward Patterson , an illiterate but proud black man who won’t bend to the will of his tormentors. He is proudly defiant and he won’t sign his name admitting guilt just to get parole. His songs “Make Friends With the Truth” and “You Can’t Do Me” are vocal highlights.
This is a true ensemble show that asks its performers to go the extra yard. Two of the actors – Isiah Reynolds, playing Ozie Powell, and Darrell Morris Jr., performing Charles Weems – also portray the two female accusers.
There is a horrifying moment after the Scottsboro Boys are convicted yet again when Garrett, as The Interlocutor, decides “the boys” should mark the occasion by doing “The Cakewalk,” a high-stepping dance that was a classic element in the disgraced minstrel show tradition.
The score has its moments with the mixing and matching of musical genres that Kander and Ebb were noted for and Matthew Stern leads five musicians in bringing the music to vivid life.
Ilyse Robbins’ choreography — the original choreography was by Stroman – provides the production with stunning amounts of both energy and style in the production numbers, while a top-notch design team composed of frequent visitors to SpeakEasy add to the overall effect.
There’s no doubt that the stark, original approach to such serious material may give you pause at first, but Daigneault can put his fears to rest. “The Scottsboro Boys” is both one of SpeakEasy’s more ambitious and well-realized productions in recent seasons.
The SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “The Scottsboro Boys.” Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Book by David Thompson. Directed by Paul Daigneault. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Nov. 26. Tickets: 617-933-8600,www.speakeasystage.com