(Photo by Richard Hubert Smith)
The Scottsboro Boys
Review by Mark Shenton
30 Oct 2013
Kander and Ebb's 40+ year collaboration yielded several iconic Broadway masterworks, not least Cabaret (now out on tour yet again in the UK with Will Young in Rufus Norris's production that was seen last year in the West End, and is returning to Broadway again next year in Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall's revival) and Chicago (now the longest running revival in Broadway history).
But the most startling fact is that even Fred Ebb's death, aged 76 in 2004, hasn't brought their working lives together to an end. Since then, we've seen both Curtains and The Scottsboro Boys premiere on Broadway, and while the first of those is yet to make it to London (apart from in student and fringe productions), we are now thrillingly seeing The Scottsboro Boys transfer here in a full-blooded and bodied recreation of Susan Stroman's original New York production that was first seen at off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre before moving (all-too-briefly) to Broadway's Lyceum.
And now it finds its ideal home, both physically and emotionally, in the Young Vic, a venue that regularly specialises in black-themed work but which resonates powerfully across any colour divide to speak to us all. This show is significant not just for being the only show in Kander and Ebb's extensive canon to be built primarily around black characters, but also because it takes the framing devices already familiar from Cabaret and Chicago of setting their narratives against a backdrop of cabaret or vaudeville respectively to adopt a far more historically disquieting one.
It adopts the uncomfortable form of the minstrel show -- which had white performers using black-face to imitate black people -- to have black actors pretending to be white to pretend to be black. That puts a satirical and disturbing distance between its chastening true story of a wrongful accusation that destroyed the lives of its nine young black defendants, aged just 13 to 19, to stand it on its head.
While the audience finds itself mulling just where it stands as a result, the show provides another sort of tension through its constantly ravishing, astonishing execution; you are constantly checking yourself about how appropriate it is to delight in such thrilling choreography and its jazzy, snazzy score as it re-tells such a dreadful tale.
But enjoy them you must, for the show also beautifully honours the lives it tells and the injustice that it exposes. Susan Stroman's production brings a punchy authority and integrity to its storytelling, with a fine ensemble cast led by Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon, reprising their Broadway performances as Mr Bones and Mr Tambo respectively, who are the comedic commentators to the show.
After the Broadway imports of The Book of Mormon and Once this year already, here's a show in a completely different, altogether more serious vein than either that casts its own insinuating spell and deserves its place in London's theatre firmament just as much.
What the popular press had to say...
"The production, with a book by David Thompson, is uncomfortable, edgy and more than a little self-righteous. But is also passionate, original, and at times deeply moving."
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
"... this is a show that combines a social conscience with wittily inventive direction and choreography."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"At the end of this almost two-hour production ... I felt I had seen a professional, intelligent piece of theatre. But I did not feel my soul had been gripped."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"A phenomenal cast."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"This is a barbed, ambitious show that revels in contrast as it simultaneously charms and provokes."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
External links to full reviews from popular press
Telegraph - Independent - Guardian