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'The Scottsboro Boys' Is An Admirable Musical Misfire

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If there is one thing the musical theatre format has proven over the last several decades, it is that it is flexible. Once dismissed as simple stories that merely served as vehicles fortunes and dance numbers, musicals have since revealed themselves to be showpieces for brilliant minds, such as Stephen Sondheim, to be structurally malleable and able to deal with serious subject matter. A case in point is The Scottsboro Boys, with music and lyrics by the acclaimed team of John Kander and Fred Ebb (book by David Thompson). At first glance, the idea of a musical dealing with the great historical tragedy referred to by the title seems possibly disrespectful, but that proves not to be the case. In many ways, the result is intelligent and daring, and the new production at the Ahmanson is well acted and directed. Unfortunately, it also doesn't quite work as well as it might.

In 1931 Alabama, in the town of Scottsboro, nine young African-American men are removed from a train and placed into jail. They're falsely accused of raping two white women, Ruby (Gilbert L. Bailey II) and Victoria (Christian Dante White), and are sentenced to death. However, the case gains attention in the north, and lawyer Samuel Leibowitz (JC Montgomery) begins a series of appeals to overturn the death sentence. Years go by, deals are made, confessions are recanted, but in many ways, justice is never served.

Joshua Henry is appropriately angry as "Scottsboro Boy" Haywood Patterson, and his delivery of "Nothin'," which contrasts Haywood's righteous fury with minstrel show stereotypes, is powerful. One of the most regrettable flaws in the show is that the other eight "Boys" aren't fleshed out much as characters—one is smart, one is younger, one is willing to sell out the others—but their ensemble work is fine. Bailey and White, who also play two of the title characters, register more memorably as the "white trash" accusers, hilariously bitchy in "Alabama Ladies." Bailey is terrific and impressively acrobatic in "Never Too Late," and White scores in a bitterly funny reprise of "Ladies." Montgomery is good in multiple roles and outstanding in his delivery of "That's Not The Way We Do Things." Hal Linden excels as the genially racist Interlocutor, and Trent Armand Kendall is strong as several clownish and corrupt authority figures.

Director Susan Stroman stages the musical professionally, and her choreography uses the space with fluid grace. The basic concept of Kander & Ebb's play, to examine this instance of racial injustice in the microcosm and America's treatment of race in a macrocosm via the format of a minstrel show, is sound, akin to the structure of their classic Cabaret. A lot of it works, including the Brechtian use of recurrent characters Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo to signal the writers' feelings about the subjects at hand. The main problem with the piece, however, is that it doesn't take the opportunity to bring the Scottsboro Boys to life as characters, and one leaves the play not having learned as much about the people in question as one might hope. Also, as a musical, the songs aren't particularly memorable. Finally, the use of blackface at the end of the show seems pointless. Overall, this show is a respectable misfire, an admirable attempt that doesn't entirely hit its target.

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"The Scottsboro Boys" plays at the Ahmanson Theatre through June 30. Tickets are available online.