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THEATER REVIEW The Scottsboro Boys
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2017-02-15

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Playwright: Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, book by David Thompson. At: Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: $45-$51. Runs through: March 12

The real-life story related in our play is of how nine African-American teenagers, one day in 1931, all happened to be freight-hopping on the same Chattanooga-to-Memphis train. Their discovery and arrest revealed two more illegal passengers on board—white women, who accused the colored men of raping them. Despite evidence of the latter's innocence, regional justice mandated a guilty verdict, repeated in several appeals over the next six years, while drawing national attention to the prisoners facing an uncertain future on Death Row.

This dark chapter in our nation's history would appear an unlikely premise for musical comedy, but hitmakers John Kander and Fred Ebb, having earlier in their career successfully depicted the Nazi Invasion and prohibition-era Gangland Corruption as razzle-dazzle extravaganzas, decided the time was ripe in 2006 for an account of racial atrocities framed in the conventions of an old-time blackface Minstrel Show.

Audience demographics have changed over the intervening decades, however, and in 2017, not even a pious denouement meant to inject a note of self-righteous distance into the grin-and-shuffle stage picture can prevent this one-note concept emerging the most cringeworthy exercise in bad taste since Stephen Dolginoff's Thrill Me.

To be sure, playgoers repelled by nearly two intermissionless hours of Kander and Ebb's faux-naif iconography can focus on the scholarly aspects of this once-popular period entertainment whose conventions are preserved chiefly in print images, forcing the actors in this Porchlight Music Theatre revival to deliver their patter in tableau mode, effectively stifling any comic phrasing likely to elicit laughs. You can also suspend your enlightened moral sensibilities and revel in a score reflecting Broadway fashions of a decade ago, performed by a muscular-voiced and agile-footed cast who discharge their duties with unflinching alacrity, whether tapping energetically as prison guards playfully engage in terrifying a child with threats of imminent execution in the electric chair, or extolling the advantages of "Jew Money" in a stroll-tempo ballad.

The talent and industry invested by Porchlight's production company is certainly to be commended. That said, though, would-be composers inspired by its success to embark on such prospective song-and-dance pageants as, say, The Emmett Till Follies or Maine Coon Cats, are advised that if satire ( as George S. Kaufman once observed ) is what closes on Saturday night, the shelf life of irony is considerably shorter.


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