Rachel Weinberg has been a freelance theater critic around Chicago for more than three years. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Prior to that, Rachel worked for two years in digital marketing at Goodman Theatre and spent a season as a Marketing Apprentice for Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City. You can read all of Rachel's reviews at RachelWeinbergReviews.com and find her on Twitter @RachelRWeinberg.
Pictured: (l-r) Denzel Tsopnang, Larry Yando, Mark J.P. Hood. Photo by Kelsey Jorissen.
Review: THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS at Porchlight Music Theatre
By Rachel Weinberg
Now in its Chicago premiere at Porchlight Music Theatre, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS could not be a more timely musical to produce. This musical recounting of the 1931 imprisonment and trial of the titular Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men ranging in age from 13-19 who were pulled from an Alabama train and wrongfully accused of the rape of two young white women, certainly has plenty of echoes to the present moment.
Kander and Ebb have brilliantly added an extra layer of poignancy to the musical by framing it as a minstrel show. As with the musical CABARET, this gives THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS a literal performative aspect. At the top of the show, we meet the white Interlocutor (here portrayed by Larry Yando) and his comical right-hand men, Mr. Tambo (Mark J.P. Hood) and Mr. Bones (Denzel Tsopnang)—these characters were traditionally performed in blackface. In writing the show (with book by David Thompson), Kander and Ebb contrast the heightened theatricality of these minstrel performers with the naturalistic and harrowing story of the Scottsboro Boys. It’s an endlessly intelligent device that lends an extra level of rightful discomfort to the experience of this show.
Under the direction of Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. and with choreography by Florence Walker-Harris, however, Porchlight’s production doesn’t always succeed in highlighting the contrast between these two performance styles. Andrel Onegin’s set design and Samantha Jones’s costumes surely transport us to the era of the 1930s. But the entire production feels rooted primarily in more somber moments, where the outsized performances of the Interlocutor, Mr. Tambo, and Mr. Bones are meant to add humor before pulling the rug out from under audiences. While Yando certainly succeeds in portraying the caustic, sinister side of his role, he doesn’t lean as much into the high energy entertainer component and doesn’t exhibit the necessary vocal chops. Hood and Tsopnang also primarily echo that somber energy.
Fortunately, the nine actors portraying the Scottsboro Boys do manage to find that contrast in some moments of the show. In particular, James Earl Jones II is remarkable as Haywood Patterson—the oldest of the Scottsboro Boys and the largest vocal role in the show. Jones keenly highlights the two levels on which the musical unfolds. This is particularly true in the number “Make Friends With The Truth.” Alongside his fellow Scottsboro Boys, Jones wins us over with a bit of charm, charisma, and laughs in the song—only to completely turn the tide at the end. It is in moments like these that this production succeeds the most.
Jones’s fellow eight Scottsboro Boys are all similarly strong actors, though they have varying ranges of vocal and dancing ability. In addition to Jones, Travis Austin Wright as Olen Montgomery and the sweet-voiced 14-year-old Cameron Goode as youngest Scottsboro boy Eugene Williams have some of the best vocals of the evening. Walker-Harris’s choreography works well in some moments, especially in the chilling “Electric Chair” number, but feels erratic and messy in others.
Certainly, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS is an incredibly haunting and beautifully constructed piece, even if the pacing feels slightly off. And while Porchlight’s production doesn’t quite hit all the right notes, it does demonstrate the strong emotional resonance and impact of this unique and timely musical.