Theatre Review: “The Scottsboro Boys” @ Lyceum Theatre (NYC), 10/08/10

Officially, reviews aren’t suppose to come out until after a Broadway show opens. The Scottsboro Boys’s opening night isn’t until October 31st, 2010.  No press tickets were given; I bought my own and do not feel obligated to wait for this reason.

A couple of exciting things happened last night at the first preview of The Scottsboro Boys:

  • It was my first time at a “first preview” of a Broadway show.
  • I sat in the audience that Mr. Kander was sitting in.
  • It was my first time at the Lyceum Theatre.

And, unfortunately, that was about as exciting as the night got.

The show struggled to tell the story of the famous 1930s Scottsboro cases, in which eight African American boys were accused of raping two white women. Of course, they were unjustly tried in the South and the attempted appeals were enormous with no success. The musical uses the stylization of a the outdated “minstrel show” as a way to tell their story. On paper, this idea seems absolutely perfect — tell the 1930s story through the medium of a very outdated entertainment, the minstrel show, that’s rife with racism and bigotry that fits in perfectly with the plot.

A minstrel show involves comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music, performed by white people in blackface or, especially after the Civil Warblack people in blackface.

The show begins with the song, “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!” and the actors welcome the audience to their show, “The Scottsboro Boys”. The actors’ energy was contagious as they danced and sang their hearts out in this number. The voices, harmonies and choreography was wonderful but their diction was so poor I didn’t understand a word anyone was saying. (The diction was poor throughout the show.) It took me a moment in the next scene to realize why the eight boys were on a train singing about their new prospects in “Commencing in Chattanooga”. This is where the true minstrel show started.

From then on, true to the minstrel form, there were comedy sketches, songs and dances, as well as blackface on African American actors. All of this stylization got in the way of the actual human emotions of the story. During the “Electric Chair” dance, three actors gave a rousing tap number that depicted dying on an electric chair. It was a grotesque display of emotional manipulation. It wanted to be daring and abrasive, but all of this was shrouded in minstrel-y type gimmicks — filled with electric chair sound effects and incredible light cues. This supposedly powerful number left me with nothing.

This happened song after song, until finally I wondered when the intermission was coming. It never came; The Scottsboro Boys is 2-hour show with no intermission. A mistake. It never allowed the audience members to take a 15-min breather and digest the art form or material. Instead of being refreshed and ready for the second half of the show, I felt disinterested and not connected to the material or characters.

Even the last number that was performed in blackface wasn’t moving. It was horrifying to see the bigotry that was in the entertainment industry in the 1800s, but because the title song, “The Scottsboro Boys” was caught up in the gimmick, the emotional content was lost.

Kander and Ebb’s score seemed as outdated as the minstrel show. There were a few songs that the harmonies were unquestionably beautiful but overall, it felt very overused. Several of the songs even seemed like unused throw-outs from Chicago or Cabaret. Their melodies and lyrics weren’t as interesting or catchy as Kander & Ebb’s past shows.

I do believe that The Scottsboro Boys was well performed. All of the actors and singers were wonderful. Joshua Henry and Rodney Hicks were stand-outs and overall the cast is super talented. I don’t think that Susan Stroman, the director, could conceivably do any better with the style and script of this show. It was wonderfully choreographed and the use of chairs was interesting, but lacked the creative punch The Scottsboro Boys desperately needed.

It just ultimately became The Scotts-boring Boys.


4 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “The Scottsboro Boys” @ Lyceum Theatre (NYC), 10/08/10

  1. Thanks for another astute review. I’m a huge fan of Kander & Ebb, but again this show seems problematic. A compelling story without a doubt but the minstrel conceit seems wearisome after a while.

    The Lyceum is Broadway’s most beautiful house I think.

  2. I couldn’t disagree more with this review. Previews are often a toss up so it’s hard to tell if they were maybe working out some first preview kinks, but I went last week and was blown away by the show. I was in the first row of the balcony which is on a ridiculous slant. I honestly felt like I was on a roller coaster. It was so uncomfortable I was worried it would ruin the whole experience regardless of how the show was. But once the show started it didn’t matter anymore how lopsided I was up there. I felt the music, performances and choreography were all fantastic and I was truly moved by the show as a whole.

  3. You went to a different show than I did. This is truly a genius show. Yes, the actors are talented, wow, are they! Kander and Ebb did their homework..I educated myself before I went. This is a true story that needs to NEVER be forgotten. Like 9/11 , a story of true was funny and so sad. I started crying as haywood sang “I AM FREE”. Don’t get on that train..don’t, don’t, don’t..I loved the fact there was no intermission, straight through, all that talent, yes! There is a Scottsboro Boys Museum in Scottsboro, Al…go..All the law schools have info online, get the true story and remember it, remember was happening all over the country not just the deep south. We need to rid ourselves of hate. Our children deserve better and so did these boys. God bless REAL men like Samuel Leibowitz and Judge Horton !

  4. I just saw this on Saturday. I thought it and all it’s performers were in credible. I sat in awe and wonderment throughout.

    BTW….this is precisely why you dont REVIEW a first preview.

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