Standing ovations in the West End seem somewhat commonplace these days, with shows such as The Bodyguard and The Commitments practically bullying the audience to their feet for a curtain call sing-a-long. At ‘The Scottsboro Boys’ I was lucky to experience quite the opposite – a genuine, bona fide standing ovation where the powerful ending of the show pulled the audience to its feet in rapturous applause. This Kander and Ebb gem was initially work-shopped at New York’s Vineyard Theatre, before opening in the 2010/11 Broadway season, picking up 12 Tony nominations. Despite not taking home any (that year was somewhat whitewashed by the Juggernaut that is ‘The Book of Mormon’) it was clear to everyone who had seen ‘The Scottsboro Boys’ that it was a unique and special piece of theatre, and one which required a much wider audience.
The Young Vic is the ideal London venue for this powerful and challenging musical, which had lost none of its power and originality in its transatlantic journey. Away from the commercialism and dross of the West End, an extremely diverse audience sat in perfect composure throughout the 2 hour show, captivated by the extraordinary work of the cast and creative team.
It’s easy to forget sometimes that songwriting duo John Kander and (the late) Fred Ebb are responsible for some of the grittiest musicals of the past 40 years, with each of their shows offering a level of political or social comment through the layers of ‘razzle dazzle’, and ‘The Scottsboro Boys’ is their most effective. Just as ‘Chicago’ used the vaudeville setting to frame the narrative, and ‘Cabaret’ the cabaret, ‘The Scottsboro Boys’ uses a minstrel show in order to tell the story and maintain an effective tone throughout. Turning the convention on its head, eleven black men play the parts of white southern belles, Jewish lawyers and white prison guards, reversing the ‘blacking up’ of the minstrel convention. Controlled by an older, white ‘Interlocutor’ who acts as a master of ceremonies, the staging centres around a semi-circle of chairs underneath a twisted proscenium, which are manipulated throughout to create the various settings.
Based on the true accounts of The Scottsboro trials, where 9 innocent black boys (one as young as 13) were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train outside Paint Rock Alabama, the case bears significant historical connections to the civil rights movement – a point made strikingly clear at the show’s resolution. The tone shifts considerably throughout, with the audience invited to laugh at uncomfortable elements, making for an even more powerful conclusion.
Broadway legend Susan Stroman directs and choreographs with absolute conviction and sincerity. The pace, tone and style are perfect, and the piece never preaches or deliberately twists your emotions. The musical feels classy, slick and precise – traits which are sadly not always shared by many shows on the other side of the river. Whilst many New York to London transfers lose their determined Broadway edge, this is the finest recreation of Broadway energy and talent I’ve ever seen in London. Helped partly by the inclusion of members of the original cast, the bar is significantly raised, and within the unique and edgy setting of the Young Vic, Broadway magic is unleashed.
Kander and Ebb’s score is close to perfection, and thoroughly gets under the skin of their chosen style without sounding too pastiche or passé. Full bodied chorus numbers blend with endearing solo moments to create a thoroughly intelligent and mesmerising score that feels complete from start to finish.
Christian Dante-White, Clinton Roane and Colman Domingo lead a highly impressive cast in which each member delivers a true triple threat performance. Their conviction to both their individual characters and overall style of the show makes for a compelling ensemble performance with not a weak link in sight.
I have never felt so lucky to be in a room with other audience members than at this performance, and was compelled to join the ranks of the standing ovation – something I’ve not found myself doing since seeing Patti in ‘Gypsy’. After a month of disappointing new musicals in London, it was a delight and a revelation to see what has to be the best musical of 2013.