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Review: 'Scottsboro Boys' a dazzling show about a travesty

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"The Scottsboro Boys" has finally arrived in Los Angeles, a year after this 2010 Broadway musical performed in San Diego and San Francisco. It shouldn't have taken this long, but don't miss the opportunity to catch one of the most inventive American musicals to come around in a long while.

The show, which opened Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre, is a sophisticated knockout, a musical for those who like their razzle-dazzle with a radical, unsentimental edge. The subject matter is the opposite of upbeat, but "The Scottsboro Boys" reminds us that remembrance can be a kind of redress, that not letting evil escape into oblivion can be a partial victory.

Joshua Henry, who received a Tony nomination for his performance as Haywood Patterson, is back in the cast of Susan Stroman's supremely polished production. And his powerhouse performance as one of nine black youths unjustly accused of raping two white Southern women who happened to be passengers on the same Memphis-bound train gives this dazzling, envelope-pushing show a beautiful gravity.

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It should come as no surprise that Kander & Ebb is the duo behind this audacious offering, which mixes minstrelsy with Brechtian theatrics in an irony-whipping postmodern manner. Leading lights of the "concept musical," John Kander and Fred Ebb (best known for "Chicago" and "Cabaret") extended the possibilities of the form with "The Scottsboro Boys."

Created with book writer David Thompson and completed after Ebb's death in 2004, the show travesties a travesty of the American legal system. Following the lead of the Interlocutor (an adept Hal Linden), who functions as a morally obtuse master of ceremonies, the tale of the Scottsboro Nine is reenacted as a traveling carnival show. (Stroman's precise choreography ensures that even the most clownish bits are performed with a tumbling grace.)

The mood is irreverent, but there's no denying the tragedy of what occurred. History is burlesqued not so that events can be ridiculed and dismissed but so that the injustice can sting afresh. "The Scottsboro Boys" would rather leave you burning with indignation than drowning in a puddle of tears, though in the end sorrow and anger are given their due.

"Shake those tambourines, boys!" the Interlocutor (outfitted like Colonel Sanders) orders as the performers prepare to restart their act. Reporting for duty are Mr. Bones (Trent Armand Kendall) and Mr. Tambo (JC Montgomery), who together portray a rogue's gallery of racist Southern villains, including the Alabama sheriff and deputy who, with gleeful sadism, haul a group of black youths (the oldest being 19) to prison for a crime they obviously didn't commit.

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The Scottsboro youths are assembled for the cakewalk, the strutting dance of minstrel shows. This crazy circus act has been trotted out before, but Haywood makes a special request: "This time can we tell the truth?"

Gilbert L. Bailey II and Christian Dante White, who play two of the Scottsboro boys, don drag as they take on the roles of the two disreputable Southern women whose false accusations upended the lives of nine youths who were merely looking for work at the dawn of the Depression.

Linden, the lone white performer, steps in when needed to play the judge and the governor of Alabama, among other characters. Samuel Leibowitz, the New York lawyer who heroically came to the defense of the accused (and isn't treated with the respect he deserves), is one of Tambo's roles undertaken by Montgomery.

Although the musical takes us through the frustrating series of trials, with placards informing us that yet another year has passed without justice being served, no one would confuse "The Scottsboro Boys" with a documentary. The lampooning style of Thompson's sometimes comically over-labored script is laid on thick, with hateful bigots presented as vaudeville caricatures.

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Kander & Ebb's ragtime-filled score might have you tapping your feet at numbers about electric chairs and lynchings. The jangling note between style and content is intentional. "The Scottsboro Boys" courts our cognitive dissonance. The show disquiets theatergoers while entertaining them. The effect for me was a keener awareness of the outrage of innocent youths being sentenced to death for no other crime than being born black.

The Ahmanson may not be an ideal venue for a show that began off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre and thrives in a more intimate environment. Beowulf Boritt's scenic design and Ken Billington's lighting don't quite have the same freshness as they did at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre and San Diego's Old Globe.

But the somber notes of Stroman's production are, if anything, more fully sounded. The chemistry of this particular cast draws out the pathos more than the satire of the musical. The actors playing the Scottsboro Nine flesh out unique personalities and relationships. They never blur into an abstract group for the history books.

Henry's emotionally full performance as Haywood lights the way. Stare into his eyes as he sings "Go Back Home," with its rapturously lovely melody giving expression to the dream of fairness and freedom, and you'll have an intimation of the suffering the Scottsboro boys endured — a suffering that has been indelibly transposed into art.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'The Scottsboro Boys'

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuedays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Please call for exceptions.) Ends June 30.

Tickets: $20 to $115 (subject to change.)

Contact: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes with no intermission

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