'The Scottsboro Boys" would appear to have everything going for it- not the least of which is a slow musical season that needs a big mainstream hit.
This boasts one of the unfinished scores that legendary composer John Kander completed after his invaluable lyricist partner Fred Ebb died in 2004. The subject, the true '30s story of nine innocent young black men in an Alabama jail charged with raping two white women, has injustice, outrage, irony - all the dark and edgy innards that should draw out the best from the show-biz provocateurs of "Cabaret" and "Chicago." Plus, the 100-minute chamber musical has been directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, who was a Kander and Ebb specialist before Mel Brooks had ever heard her name.
Well, "The Scottsboro Boys," which wisely opened under the radar at Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre, has all that smart stuff going for it, plus the daring idea of staging the tragedy in the inflammatory form of an old minstrel show. All the elements work beautifully, except that, ultimately, the show feels effortful, unable to escape the confines of its good intentions.
It is hard to locate the source of the middling impact when so much has been staged with such style and smartness. The excellent cast includes John Cullum (the only white man) and his pungent, twisted-American voice as the Interlocutor, the emcee and patter host who gathers the "boys" in a half circle of chairs and exhorts them to "put on those bright faces that make people so happy." One of the men (the defiantly poignant Brandon Victor Dixon), pleads that, this once, they be allowed to "tell it like it really happened? Can we tell the truth?"
Stroman tells it through scenes of racial vaudeville, ingeniously staged by moving a few painted chairs into the fateful boxcar where the men were framed, then the jail and courtroom for Dixie justice. Her choreography is a bright compendium of cakewalks, line dances and a big tap number for three boys around an electric chair. The songs, too, are period - train songs, chain-gang songs - with lyrics that don't bite hard enough in places we haven't been bitten before.
We want to be shredded by the injustice and wowed by the creativity. Admiration seems not enough.
WHAT "The Scottsboro Boys"
WHERE Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St., Manhattan
INFO $70; 212-353-0303; vineyardtheatre.org.
BOTTOM LINECompelling history, middling show