If anyone required proof that musical theatre does not have to be fluffy and light, they need look no further than the works of John Kander and Fred Ebb. Their masterpiece Cabaret explored how Nazi ideology could infiltrate the German psyche, and although there was a degree more frivolity to the darkness of their Chicago, the subject matter of The Scottsboro Boys could hardly be more serious if it tried.
The musical, which premiered in New York in 2010, now hits the Garrick Theatre following a run at the Young Vic last year. It explores the real life story of nine black youths who in 1931 were unfairly accused of rape in Alabama, and automatically presumed guilty because of the colour of their skin. Enduring several trials, they spent many years fighting for their release from jail, and never achieved justice since they remained branded for the rest of their lives. Only in 2013, three years after the musical first appeared, were they all finally granted pardons.
Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys tackles the subject matter in both a clever and poignant manner. The evening is presented by the Interlocutor (Julian Glover, the only white cast member) as a show with entertaining musical numbers. It is disconcerting precisely because there is an incongruity between the happy-go-lucky, glitzy performance style and the subject matter that sees innocent people constantly facing the electric chair.
In many ways, the piece is executed very effectively, with numbers even including the type of refrains that might be witnessed in music hall acts. The ensemble cast consists of the nine victims, the Interlocutor, and a mystery woman whose identity is only revealed at the very end. There are also two figures who take the satire to even greater depths by portraying a pair of black minstrels, Mr Bones and Mr Tambo, who play every white person who appears in the story with large exaggerated gestures. If we are left feeling extremely uncomfortable by all of this, that is rather the point.
The Scottsboro Boys is not, however, flawless. There are many musical highlights as the songs explore vaudeville, gospel and jazz, but in spite of a particularly poignant a cappella number, one is left feeling that the score is not in the same league as Cabaret. The show does possess a clear enough narrative arc, but it is still not as strong as it might be. Although the announcement of each retrial, which could overturn the boys’ guilty verdicts, creates some highs, overall there are many more lows in this story of injustice. As a result, too much of the work feels on the same level so that as the successive tragedies unfold they begin to lose their impact because there are insufficient moments of relief against which they can stand out. A more varied exploration of the boys’ journey, and indeed of the individual characters involved, might have yielded greater dividends.
Nevertheless, with excellent choreography and a first rate cast, led by Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson, The Scottsboro Boys certainly has it moments, and the manner in which the initially happy final number is suddenly hijacked by the rage of despair reminds us of just how deep and moving this musical is capable of being.
Until 21 February 2015 at the Garrick Theatre, 2 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0HH with start times of 14.30 and 19.45. Tickets (£17.50-67.50): 0844 412 4662 or visit The Scottsboro Boys Musical website.
Londonist received a complimentary ticket from Target Live events marketing agency.