The Scottsboro Boys (Young Vic, London) – review by Carole Woddis.

In 1931, in Alabama, a terrible miscarriage of justice took place.  Nine young African-Americans were arrested on a trumped up charge for rape on two young white women.

All nine were sentenced to death.  In the following years, trial followed trial.  One of the charges of rape was withdrawn and six years later, four of the young men were released.

But there was no reprieve for one of them, Haywood Patterson who died in prison at the age of 39.

From such tragic events, the composers John Kander and Fred Ebb – co-creators of Cabaret, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman no less – have fashioned a roaring musical that mocks decades of discrimination by turning tragedy into farce in the style of a Black & White Minstrel show.

That takes some doing, to use the very weapons of prejudice to undermine it.

But undermine it they do in The Scottsboro Boys that has now reached London three years after its Broadway opening in a co-British, co-American production that mixes both home grown and original Broadway performers in Susan Stroman’s Young Vic revival.

The word pizazz is often used in such contexts.  But Stroman, renowned for her staging of musical revivals (The Producers, Crazy for You, Oklahoma to name but a few) provides a dazzling choreographic and production background that plays to the strengths of an all-black cast who can flick from gross caricature to high pathos in a twinkling.

All the stereotypes of `minstrelsy’ are on show here, from the white Mr Interlocuter (British actor Julian Glover) to Mr Bones (the gravel voiced, rubber limbed Colman Domingo), Mr Tambo (Forrest McClendon, sharp and beady) and a gallery of attendant personalities – leering guards, sheriffs, lawyers – ending in the cakewalk, the strutting dance that habitually brought the curtain down on the awful charade that was the black and white minstrel show.

For when all is said and done, The Scottsboro Boys isn’t just a joyfully bitter send-up of that charade, a celebration of fantastic dance and Kander and Ebb’s extraordinary ability to make jaunty tuneful showstoppers out of the electric chair, deprivation, fear and exploitation.

Above all The Scottsboro Boys is a musical that highlights the destructive power of lies, perpetuated down through history, the dishonouring of truth even up to recent times.  For it was only this year, 2013 that the Scottsboro Boys finally received their pardon.

Too late.  Far too late.  Those that were released continued to suffer, resulting in early death, often at their own hands.

The Scottsboro Boys is a stunning if sometimes discomforting tribute to them – Kander and Ebb’s jazzy, Scott Joplin style music setting up a consciously jarring tension with the music’s subject – just as Sondheim did in his hit and wonderful musical about serial killer and demon barber of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd.

A musical, then, for the thoughtful, not least in its closing moments when the only and silent woman character of the evening – perhaps the archetypal mother waiting at home for sons who will never return and who thought they were going North to find work and make new lives – sits and in the one line given her becomes Rosa Parks who in 1955 refused to budge from the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama because `I want to sit and rest my weary feet’ – and broke segregation.

The Scottsboro Boys is at the Young Vic to Dec 21; see www.youngvic.org

© Carole Woddis  Oct 31, 2013