by Clark Groome
For all its lighthearted approach, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “The Scottsboro Boys” is a very serious musical. Set in the 1930s, the show relates the story of nine young black men falsely accused and convicted of raping two white women in a boxcar. “The Scottsboro Boys” is the last musical by the collaborators who also wrote “Cabaret,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Chicago,” “And the World Goes ‘Round,” et al.
Rarely do their shows deal with trivial matters. In spite of the seeming casual or humorous approach to the material they’re presenting, the core of their musicals is serious and often important.
That’s certainly true with “The Scottsboro Boys.” Set as a minstrel show, the story gradually unfolds, revealing as it does the racism, anti-Semitism and the inhumanity that nine innocent young men faced because their accuser was a white woman who was lying to cover up the reason for her presence in the boxcar, which was to service, for a fee, the men who were there.
In its two intermission-less hours, we get to know the young men and their situation intimately. “The Scottsboro Boys” took a long time to come from initial idea to first production. During that period lyricist Ebb died. When the show opened on Broadway last season, it got terrific reviews and 12 Tony nominations but didn’t do enough business to keep it running. Fortunately for us, the Philadelphia Theatre Company has remounted it at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.
The standard practice for regional theaters like PTC is to re-envision and restage shows that have appeared on Broadway. “The Scottsboro Boys” is an exception. What you see locally is basically the same show that appeared at New York’s Lyceum Theatre last year.
The great Susan Stroman’s original direction, recreated by Jeff Whiting, is on view at PTC. So are many of the original cast members, notably Forrest McClendon and Mt. Airy native Rodney Hicks. McClendon plays a number of roles, all brilliantly. Hicks is Haywood Patterson, the Scottsboro boy on whom most of the attention is focused.
The entire cast is terrific, with special kudos due to, in addition to McClendon and Hicks, Ron Holgate as the Interlocutor, Nile Bullock’s12-year-old Eugene Williams, JC Montgomery in a number of roles and Kaci M. Fannin. She plays the lady who is alone at a bus stop at the play’s beginning and later is the thread that ties the whole story to the Civil Rights movement. She portrays Rosa Parks, who met her husband protesting the treatment the Scottsboro Boys received 20 years before she said she was “gonna rest my feet a while,” and refused to move to the back of the bus.
The production’s fine designers are Beowolf Boritt (set), Toni-Leslie James (costumes), Ken Billington (lighting) and Peter Hylenski (sound). The fine pit band and the cast’s stunning musical performances were all the product of musical director Eric Ebbenga.
Kander and Ebb’s score is first rate. It rivals those for their best-known shows, “Cabaret” and “Chicago.” In those shows as well as this one, that score deals effectively and surprisingly with serious issues. “The Scottsboro Boys” is a stunning musical that PTC’s production stages brilliantly.
For tickets to the Philadelphia Theatre Company production of “The Scottsboro Boys,” playing at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre through Feb. 19, call 215-985-0420 or visit www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org