BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
Thrilling musical theater, "The Scottsboro Boys" vividly brings to musical life a true and shameful story of American racism in the 1930s.
Opening Sunday in a knockout production at the Lyceum Theatre, this final collaboration of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb finds the great team in fine form creating a musical with book writer David Thompson framed in the same conceptual manner that yielded "Cabaret," "Chicago" and "Zorba."
The concept so sharply rendered by director-choreographer Susan Stroman relates the ugly Scottsboro story through the format of a minstrel show, a once-popular jamboree concert of songs and gags performed by black and white entertainers in burnt-cork drag.
The presentational style and broad comedy of minstrelsy brightens what otherwise would be a gloomy tale of nine young, poor African-American men railroaded into long prison sentences on false charges. That a racially stereotypical funfest can be employed both to illustrate and comment upon racism is a keen notion ably developed by the writers and realized through Stroman's dynamite staging.
Days after catching a preview, I am still humming the catchy refrain of the exuberant "Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!" opening number. The otherwise expressive and dramatic score is streaked with folksy, ragtime-flavored music and features a break-out ballad in a gently lyrical "Go Back Home." Credited to both Kander and Ebb (who died in 2004), the wordplay — aside from a few grimly satirical songs — usually is kept relatively plain to reflect the people whose lives are being illustrated.
Cakewalks, soft-shoes, clog and other period dance modes are whipped up through Stroman's whirlwind choreography. Her imaginative use of a dozen chairs plus vintage tricks like shadow puppets — especially in an eerie Jim Crow segment — accommodate the musical's flowing structure. Between the song-and-dance episodes, Thompson's contrasting realistic scenes are enacted with force.
The company is terrific. Ever-great John Cullum spryly presides as the Interlocutor who grandly depicts paternalistic figures of authority. As his comical henchmen, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon are outrageously funny in their lampoons of white sheriffs, trollops, lawyers and bigots. The most defiant and mistreated among the prisoners is powerfully portrayed by Joshua Henry while his compatriots are created as individual personalities by the ensemble players.
Not quite two hours in running time, "The Scottsboro Boys" is enhanced brilliantly through the fluency of Beowulf Boritt's spare setting of skewed prosceniums, Ken Billington's dynamic, colorful lighting and Toni-Leslie James' artful jumble of 1930s clothes. Larry Hochman's orchestrations use banjos, fiddles, tambourines and brassy licks to foster the score's vintage sounds.
The unerring expertise in writing, staging, design and performance that makes this show so exciting is a striking reminder how musicals crafted well in the classic Broadway style remain more satisfying than the newer rocky horror likes of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" and "American Idiot" put together. "The Scottsboro Boys" proves once again that the old school still rules.
"The Scottsboro Boys" continues an open run at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.scottsboromusical.com.