MUST SEEREVIEWSTheatre ReviewsTom Williams

The Scottsboro Boys – The Musical

Music & Lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb.

Book by David Thompson

Directed by Samuel G. Roberson,  Jr.

Choreographed by Florence Walker-Hrris & Breon Arzwll.

Music Direction by Doug Peck.

Produced by Porchlight Musical Theatre.

At Stage 773, Chicago.

Stunning, flawless, and riveting musical drama is a true work of art!

The large collection of critics roamed the lobby of Stage 773 venue after witnessing a stunning work of art –The Scottsboro Boys – The Musical. It was that collectively we critics seemed to just want to savor and absorb all the vibes from the energy that  The Scottsboro Boys – The Musical produced? That thrilling creation by the creators of Cabaret, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman so amazed us that we needed to wander around. I have never in my 16 years reviewing Chicago theatre witnessed such behavior by critics. Who says that musical theatre can’t affect even the most jaded reviewer?

Kudos to Michael Weber for having the vision to mount The Scottsboro Boys – The Musical in its Chicago Premiere and for assembling such a outstanding crew of creative talents to make Porchlight’s production so stunningly powerful. After seeing this magnificent production, I can only wonder why The Scottsboro Boys – The Musical failed on Broadway? Perhaps the material was not presented with the gusto, the tasteful sensitivity and the stage craft that director Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. and his staff brought to the material? Once  you see The Scottsboro Boys – The Musical, you’ll realize that it plays as one of the “greatest” (I seldom use that term but it fits here!) musicals mounted on a Chicago stage.  In my 16+ years and almost 4,500 shows reviewed, this is one of my  cherished nights at the theatre. This work is both visionary and controversial but it is tasteful and empathetic.

The Scottsboro Boys – The Musical is presented in the style of the notorious “minstrel show.” By utilizing  a strong Brechtian satire motif led by the razor-sharp commentary by Larry Yando (The  Interlocutor), the only white man in the cast,  the show becomes a theatrically thrilling telling of a sad history factual story of a group of nine teens taken off a train in 1931 Alabama and accused of raping two white women in the  Jim Crow South. The woman were both prostitutes.

The boys suffered through threats of execution, corruption and brutal injustice and they were aided by  political intervention from activist Northerners. The style here is to have black actors play the white characters as well as the some black characters in a sort of minstrel reversal. That worked most effectively.

Denzel Tsopnang and Mark J.P. Hood are terrific as  they sang, danced and acted effectively including some smart comic and satirical bits as the minstrel players. They play everything from white sheriffs, to lawyers including a drunken defense attorney and a Jewish lawyer from New York who is met with all the intense Southern anti-Semitism, and, of course, the two white prostitutes. Tsopnang and Hood anchor the show.

But, indeed, the Scottsboro boys were the ultimate leading characters as they acted, sang and danced the innovative choreography by Florence Walker-Harris which included  tap, shuffle, minstrel styles as well as the ‘cakewalk.’  This wonderfully talented group: Olen Montogomery (Travis Austin Wright), Andy Wright (Maurice  Randle), Eugene Williams (Cameron Goode), Clarence Norris (Stephen Allen, Jr.), Willie Roberson (Izaiah Harris), Ozie Powell (Trequon Tate), Roy Wright (Jerome Riley, Jr.) Charles Weems (Jos N. Banks) and Haywood Patterson (James Earl Jones, II). Each of these ‘boys’ were nicely developed throughout with James Earl Jones, Jr (doing his finest work yet seen in Chicago) as the boy’s leader in defiance and as a smooth singer of the haunting song  “Makes Friends With the Truth” as he refused to plead guilty for something he didn’t do. Jones led the talented dancers/actors.

Musically, the Kander and Ebby score is varied and memorable with sweet ballads to a chain gang chant to those cakewalk and mocking minstrel rhythms.  We also see a maternal woman in a pink coat in the background symbolizing the boy’s mothers. She has a play ending defiant scene that works with understated power.

This show instantly engages us and hold us through the entire 1 hour, 50 minute one act (no intermission) as the story builds to a suspense filled ending. We see how all nine actually endure injustice until they gain their just due.

The Scottsboro Boys – The Musical works as fine story telling; as a fine  song and dance piece and as fine tribute to the strength of the human spirit as exhibited by the nine brave boys. This show is a masterpiece. It is the finest musical I’ve ever seen by Porchlight! Don’t miss it.

Highly Recommended.

Tom Williams.

Jeff Recommended.

At Stage 773,  1225 W. Belmont, Chicago, IL, call 773-327-5252,, tickets $45 -$51, Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm, added matinee on Thurs. March 2 at 1:30, running time is 1 hour, 50 minutes without an intermission, through March 12, 2017.