Kander and Ebb always merged their entertaining musicals with a strong social message. The Scottsboro Boys is no exception, even if it leans a little heavily on its message to the detriment of entertainment.
The show follows the true story of nine young black men in 1930s Alabama, falsely accused of raping two white women. The actual plot is fairly basic, following the men through multiple trials and the injustice they face purely for their skin colour. Hayward Patterson (Brandon Victor Dixon) emerges as the leader of the group – a determined man wedded to the truth - but really this is a stunning piece of ensemble work from a consistently strong cast.
What makes the show, though, is its form, with the narrative ironically framed as a minstrel show. The juxtaposition of a dark comedic tone and serious issues twists the form into unnerving satire, the cast mimicking bigoted white folk through grotesque, cartoonish characterisation. The two white women, for instance, are played by James T Lane and Dex Lee with hilarious effect, which only emphasises the shock factor. It’s an incredibly provocative show: you will laugh and question in equal measure. And in solemn moments where the humour pauses (the ending especially), the show proves its worth through powerful imagery and storytelling.
The set design, from Beowulf Boritt, is barebones, cleverly using just a set of chairs to evoke everything from a cell to a bus. Whilst this does provide focus, the show does lack a little in its visual stimulus. The all-white costumes, too, are a little contrived. Likewise, the score is brilliant but is missing the big tunes of Chicago and Cabaret. Instead, Kander and Ebb settle for vaudeville pastiche to serve the style rather than provide pure musical entertainment.
It’s in the performances that the show truly shines. Susan Stroman’s direction and choreography is superb, the cast offering some terrific physical performances alongside some of the best dance sequences in the West End. Colman Domingo (Mr Bones) and Forrest McClendon (Mr Tambo) are particularly enjoyable to watch as the amusing comperes of the show, playing a variety of physically distinctive characters. Vocally, too, the cast are excellent – one a capella moment especially shows off their voices to gorgeous effect.
The Scottsboro Boys may not be the strongest show in the Kander and Ebb canon, but this production still packs an emotional punch with its earnest social agenda.
Watch: The Scottsboro Boys runs at the Garrick Theatre until February 2015.