Thursday, June 28, 2012

"The Scottsboro Boys" ☼ ☼ ☼

John Kander wrote the music and Fred Ebb wrote the lyrics for several of the most popular and long-lasting musicals in American theater history. Cabaret was a brilliant and nostalgic look at the lost world of pre-war Berlin, while Chicago was a sendup of the windy city in the1920s, where everyone was on the take and couldn't wait to sing about it. The Kandernebb (as they called themselves) songs were perfect and the stories made us laugh and sing.

But Ebb died in 2004 while he and Kander were still working on "The Scottsboro Boys." Kander and others finished the show. This time, the nostalgic musical form is minstrel music and the subject is nothing less than racism in America. Making sense of all this is a lot to ask of a composer, a lyricist and a book writer.

The show would be easier to digest if racism in 2012 were as dead as fascism in 1935 Berlin or prohibition in 1930 Chicago. As it is, the stereotypes involved in minstrel music, and the lyrics to the songs, even though we know we're supposed to wink and nudge and know the authors don't really mean it, make us cringe as much as clap. You may love this show but you may despise it. Even we, knowledgeable about the theatrical concept and mindful of the pedigree of these two great American songwriters, aren't sure where we stand.

Of course, Kander and Ebb didn't get to refine the show together, as all songwriting teams do once a show is mounted and takes on a life of its own. This is a pity.

Clifton Duncan, as Haywood, singing "Make Friends with the Truth" and J.C. Montgomery, as Leibowitz, doing "That's Not the Way We Do Things (in New York)" are terrific. There is a too-short moment during "Go Back Home" when Eugene, played by Nile Bullock, sounds like a young Michael Jackson. Clifton Oliver and James T. Lane's "white, Southern girls" -- Victoria and Ruby -- are amazing, and especially in context of the damage these two women did to nine innocent men.

So many fine moments, and yet, though the musical score is evocative, it is strangely subdued. A cast as good as this one could rock the house. But salvation is not the story being told here. You don't get to celebrate with The Scottsboro Boys, because they didn't either.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division is wrestling with a rating for this show. It has four star moments alongside two star moments. It has painful racial slapstick riding in the same rail car with touching irony. It is the story of a generation's pain condensed into one act of theater. It is not supposed to make you feel good. Not feeling good is not why most of us come to the theater. So be warned. When it's hot, it's hot and when it's not, you squirm.


"The Scottsboro Boys"
A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
EXTENDED through July 22

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