SAN DIEGO — Musicals are supposed to raise your spirits and warm your heart, right? Not necessarily. And certainly not in the case of "The Scottsboro Boys," the fearlessly inventive show about one of the most notorious episodes of racial injustice in America. It disturbs audiences as much as it entertains them.
Who else but Kander & Ebb could pull off such a daring combination? Best known for "Cabaret" and "Chicago,"
Anyone who wants to see the American musical redeployed into a truth-telling weapon will want to head to San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, where Susan Stroman's acclaimed production is being presented in all its jangly razzle-dazzle.
When I first saw "The Scottsboro Boys" on Broadway in 2010, it seemed to me like a fish out of water. The musical, which began off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre, employs a postmodern form of minstrelsy to reenact the real-life horror tale of the nine young African American men (some still just boys) who, looking for work at the dawn of the Great Depression, were unjustly accused of raping two white Southern women who happened to be passengers on the same Memphis-bound train they were riding.
Stroman's production had more polish and panache than most of its competition on the Great White Way, but I didn't understand why it was subjecting itself to the cruel vicissitudes of the Broadway marketplace when its radical spirit would have found a much more hospitable environment in the alternative or nonprofit worlds.
"The Scottsboro Boys" closed predictably early on Broadway, though it did receive a slew of ex post facto Tony nominations. The Broadway gamble may not have turned out the way the show's creators and producers had hoped, but the national attention the production received has certainly extended its afterlife. And I'm grateful that California theatergoers (the show heads to San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater after San Diego) now have the opportunity to be challenged by a work that treats a noxious chapter of American history with all the scorching irony it deserves.
Ron Holgate, takes on the role of the white Interlocutor, the host of this antic theatrical enterprise. Once again the Scottsboro Boys saga is going to be performed, and he gathers his actors for the nightly plunge into their various parts, which for him include two creepy political players, the Judge and the Governor of Alabama.
Mr. Bones (Jared Joseph) and Mr. Tambo (JC Montgomery) are ready, willing and able to caricature a mostly villainous crew of white folk. And so it would seem to be business as usual for this traveling carnival, except that the actor who plays Haywood Patterson (Clifton Duncan), one of the nine and the center of our focus, throws down a challenge: "This time, can we tell the truth?"
The aggressive playfulness of the show isn't just about finding novel ways of reengaging history. It's about confronting the still partly buried truth through untraditional means: A travesty of justice is met with theatrical travesty. The approach may lack the solemnity that such a momentous case deserves, but it exposes the outrageousness that allowed the tragedy to fester as long as it did.
The first-rate score by Kander & Ebb is often defiantly upbeat. Songs grappling with electric chairs and lynchings might have you unconsciously tapping your feet. The irreverence isn't offensive because the audience is in on the sick joke of racism from the start. Whether this insouciance sacrifices emotional respect is something that can be debated, but the avoidance of musical theater sentimentality clears the way for something more powerful — a clarifying indignation.
Thompson's book is frenetically clever, though it feels rushed in spots — and not simply because of the farcical pace. The picture that develops isn't entirely clear. The theater probably isn't the best first stop for obtaining history, but Thompson does help us to figure out what it all means. And he leaves us with the hope of a certain civil rights trailblazer, whose haunting presence (not to be revealed in a review) has some historical basis.
Stroman's direction and choreography — splashing their way across a travel-ready set by Beowulf Boritt that's exquisitely lanced by Ken Billington's lighting — are at their supplest best. And while this production of "The Scottsboro Boys" wouldn't seem to have much in common with Stroman's heralded staging of "The Producers," both works share a crackling showmanship.
The cast is superbly synchronized. True, the ensemble doesn't boast a towering performance like the one Joshua Henry gave on Broadway as Haywood Patterson. Duncan is excellent in the role, though he treats Haywood's revelatory number "You Can't Do Me" more modestly — perhaps recognizing that, though Haywood's refusal to confess guilt in exchange for freedom is a victory for integrity, the man is still wasting his life in jail.
"The Scottsboro Boys" impressed me more the second time around. And though it hardly amounts to a carefree night in the theater, the musical left me feeling elevated as only original works of art can.
'The Scottsboro Boys'
Where: Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 10.
Tickets: Start at $39
Contact: (619) 234-5623 or http://www.TheOldGlobe.org