A bad show is easy to dismiss. But a potentially spectacular musical that barely misses the mark is far more disappointing. The latter is the case with The Scottsboro Boys, which is currently playing in an ultimately disappointing production at Philadelphia Theatre Company.
The last musical from the team of John Kander and Fred Ebb (who passed away in 2004), Boys is an appropriate finale for the men who used musical theater to tackle such unlikely subjects as the rise of the Nazi Party (Cabaret) and the media frenzy inspired by a celebrity murder trial (Chicago).
Similar to Chicago and Cabaret, Boys draws its inspiration from the pages of history, specifically the real-life story of nine black youths wrongly accused of raping two white women in 1931 Alabama. The teens’ imprisonment and death sentences caused outrage in the Northern states and led to the birth of the civil-rights movement.
Since their first collaboration in the early 1960s, Kander (the composer) and Ebb (who supplies the lyrics) have created musicals, both awful and sensational. Kander’s ragtime-infused music and Ebb’s darkly humorous yet often sensitive lyrics combine to make the score for Boys’ among the pair’s best. Yet director Susan Stroman’s production only rarely achieves its ambitious goal of being simultaneously disturbing and humorous. At times the humor is effective, but at key moments the production falters.
The problem certainly doesn’t lie with the actors, all of whom are superb. Five members of the cast appeared in the Broadway production, including Forrest McLendon, who delivers a performance so exceptional that it alone makes Boys worth a visit.
The production is a triumphant homecoming of sorts for McLendon. A 2009 Barrymore Award winner for his knockout performance in 11th Hour Theater Company’s Avenue X, McClendon has been a regular on Philadelphia stages for years. Scottsboro Boys marked his Broadway debut and he made the most of the opportunity capturing a Tony Award nomination for his performance as Mr. Tambo. He reprises the character (and many others) at PTC and it’s a virtuoso performance. Wearing a dazzling mile-wide grin that is at once disarming and frightening, he looks like a shady used-car salesman who’d rip off his own mother. Along with his cohort, Mr. Bones (JC Montgomery), the two embody the worst excesses of the minstrel show tradition. Their grotesquely exaggerated caricatures of racist Alabama lawmen, lawyers and prison guards are both lurid and terrifyingly comical. McClendon’s depiction of the communist New York Jewish lawyer Samuel Leibowitz is particularly complex and entertaining. Leibowitz, who represents the nine teens in their trials, can’t fully comprehend the profound emotional toil prison inflicts on his clients, but he does understand what they’re up against.
The accusations of rape are so obviously false it’s doubtful even the most racist Southern whites believe them. But Leibowitz knows the nine will never receive an innocent verdict from the all-white jury. “You’re guilty because of the way you look,” he tells the defendants.
The production is certainly good enough to recommend, but it could be so much more. Part of the problem is that David Thompson’s book only partially succeeds in getting us to care deeply about the nine lives that are so shamefully wasted. Instead of nine distinct, fully realized individuals, Thompson puts the focus on only one of the men. The result is that while we become emotionally invested in the plight of Haywood (the excellent Rodney Patterson), the other “boys” exist more as representatives of racial injustice than fully realized characters.
The only character who touches us deeply is the lone female we encounter at the story’s outset and again in the show’s conclusion when her true identity is revealed.
Through Feb 19. $51-$74. Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard sts. 215.985.0420. philadelphiatheatrecompany.org