Phil is constantly surprised by life.
After experiencing his first earthquake and returning to his hotel room, he ran a forensic check on his bathroom’s grouting. How, when the whole building was quivering around him, did it survive intact without even the hint of a hairline crack? It wasn’t even flexible grouting. How do they do that?
And he shouldn’t really be surprised by the musicalisation of grim real-life events anymore but he is. After all he suffered Jean Seberg (which, if he remembers correctly – when he saw it – opened with the actress’s body discovered in the boot of a car after her suicide and also contained the jaw-dropping moment of a chorus line of tap dancing psychiatrists) then there was the equally memorable Too Close to the Sun (the last 24 hours in the life of Earnest Hemingway before he blew his brain out). The surprise in The Scottsboro Boys, concerning nine black teenage boys, falsely accused of rape in the Alabama of 1931, isn’t so much that the event was turned into a musical, but that – unlike those others – it actually works.
It could have gone horribly wrong. A fine tightrope of taste is navigated successfully here. The story is performed in the form of a minstrel show by an almost all male black cast (the exceptions being Julian Glover who oversees the proceedings as a a plantation owner attired ‘The Interlocutor’ and Dawn Hope who plays ‘The Lady’, her significance is not revealed until the end, which most reviewers, rather surprisingly, saw fit to divulge), singing, banging tambourines, generally dancing their socks off, playing multiple roles including the boys’ white female accusers and even ‘blacking up’. That it avoids seeming glib is something of a miracle.
Wardrobe must have their work cut out removing the sweat stains from the more flamboyant costumes this energetic ensemble inhabit. Five of the cast come from the New York production and demonstrate how pizzazz can be done; not that the British cast members don’t match them. In a week of onstage chair rearranging a largely bare stage (design: Beowulf Boritt) is littered with chairs which are constantly redistributed to suggest locations from freight trains to prison cells.
John Kander and Fred Ebb‘s last show together (book by David Thompson) blasts through the complex story of numerous retrials, deep south bigotry and the tragic fates of the boys without an interval in under 2 hours. Susan (The Producers) Stroman directs and choreographs with imaginative ingenuity whilst never losing sight of the shocking and depressing story.
And if the often peppy and toe-tappingly vibrant songs aren’t memorable in a Cabaret or Chicago way the cast are. Kyle Scatliffe is mightily impressive as Haywood Patterson, one of the accused, and there’s a slew of other standout performances especially James T. Lane and Christian Dante White doubling as both accused and accusers and Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon injecting vaudevillian vivacity as Mr Bones and Mr Tambo. Bow-legged walking has never looked so good.
TSB entertains whilst leaving you feeling deeply uncomfortable that you are being entertained. Half the audience stood ovating wildy at the curtain call, which must especially please the Americans in the cast who are brought up to expect such things.
The run is sold out at the Young Vic. A transfer must surely be on the cards. It was nominated for 12 Tony Awards after it had closed on Broadway, but, up against The Book of Mormon failed to win any. Bad luck for it to open in the wrong year. With previous Olivier Awards going to shows such as Top Hat because they opened in the right year it would be a shame if Scottsboro went away empty-handed again. In the absence of Mormon this would be the one to beat.
Update: Phil was right, as ever, The Scottsboro Boys transferred to The Garrick Theatre. For more information click here.