THEATRE REVIEW: The Scottsboro Boys, Garrick Theatre

booking until 21 February 2015

www.scottsboromusicallondon.com

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.

The Scottsboro Boys at the Garrick Theatre (Photo: David Sivyer)
The Scottsboro Boys at the Garrick Theatre (Photo: David Sivyer)

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.

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6 thoughts on “THEATRE REVIEW: The Scottsboro Boys, Garrick Theatre

  1. Very good review Laura. I found the style of the show somewhat old hat and patronising though and I don’t think it’s the sort of musical that belongs in the West End, anywhere in modern Britain for that matter now. It’s 2015, not 1815!!!

    I found it too silly in tone for what really should have been portrayed as a serious drama, that though based on events 85 years ago is sadly all too pertinent today with what’s been going on in America in cities like Ferguson and Missouri.

    This is my full take on the show. http://wp.me/p1BVhD-Lp

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    • Hi, thanks for your comment – it was interesting to read your review of the show.

      Personally, I don’t think the style of the piece undermines the seriousness of the subject matter – in fact I think the uneasiness of the two tones in conjunction with each other is what makes this show so successful. For me the caricatures (in both black and white characters) and “jolly” musical numbers are not patronising but are satirical assaults on the racist views of the time (and, as you say, views that still occur today). I’m not saying this story couldn’t be told well in a serious drama, but I don’t think it would fulfil Kander & Ebb’s intentions in the same way, and I don’t think it would have been so powerful or thought-provoking.

      Parody and satire have always been used for some of the darkest subjects, by Kander & Ebb (in ‘Chicago’, for example) and countless others – just look at ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’, ‘Catch 22’, ‘Oh What A Lovely War’, Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’… the list goes on.

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      • I understand Laura and it’s a clever conceit I guess. It’s just that I found it a little grating really, but nonetheless it sure got the message home loud and clear that the trial was an absolute sham. Thank you.

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  2. […] What did I say? “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… 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.” Full review here. […]

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