booking until 21 February 2015
The best thing about going to the theatre is when a show completely exceeds expectations and reveals itself as an unexpected gem. Despite its awards and rapturous reviews, I wasn’t expecting The Scottsboro Boys to blow me away as it did or provoke such a range of powerful emotions. But lo and behold, it’s become my go-to recommendation for theatregoers in search of something special.
In their final collaboration, Kander and Ebb once again hit on a brilliant conceit: while Cabaret used a seedy nightclub as a backdrop for the rise of Nazism, and Chicago turned “merry murderesses” into vaudeville acts, The Scottsboro Boys manipulates the now defunct minstrel show (which presented African American cultural stereotypes as light entertainment) to tell the true story of the 1931 miscarriage of justice. It’s uncomfortable to watch: while the dazzling choreography makes the ensemble numbers hugely enjoyable, the provocative characterisation of false smiles, jazz hands and a innocent willingness to perform for our benefit makes for an uneasy tone that captures the biting satire of Kander and Ebb’s work. There is no interval, and the audience is confronted squarely with the tale that has few happy endings for its cast. It’s not as simple as settling down to a nice afternoon’s entertainment – and nor should it be.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with a stand-out performance from Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson, who refuses to plead guilty in order to gain freedom, giving a nuanced and incredibly moving depiction. Forrest McClendon and Richard Pitt (covering for the indisposed Colman Domingo) also shine as double act Mr Tambo and Mr Bones, while Keenan Munn-Francis does a great job as Eugene, the youngest of the group.
Susan Stroman’s production is exquisitely balanced: the minstrel show elements hit us right from the start, and a series of energetic numbers such as ‘Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!’ and ‘Commencing in Chattanooga’ keep up the pace; yet there is also space for darker notes and poignancy, with songs such as the nightmarish ‘Electric Chair’ and Dixon’s stunning rendition of ‘You Can’t Do Me’ at the climax of the show. The score is hugely emotive in itself even without lyrics, combining jazz, music hall, gospel and blues in an electrifying pastiche that sets itself up unashamedly but intelligently against the terrible injustice and gravity of the plot. The final scenes, in which the “Boys” refuse to perform, wiping their cartoonish make-up away, becomes a quietly powerful symbol of the repercussions of the case and the shame it should provoke for a society that let such a thing happen: while these events arguably launched the American Civil Rights movement, the final Scottsboro Boys were only pardoned by the governor of Alabama in 2013.
The Scottsboro Boys is a brave, unmissable and magnificent production that truly deserves this West End transfer. With show-stopping musical numbers, a cast on top form and a real serious bite in its intelligent story-telling, I only wish it were sticking around for longer.