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'The Scottsboro Boys' at the Lyceum Theatre

"The Scottsboro Boys," now playing at the Lyceum

"The Scottsboro Boys," now playing at the Lyceum Theatre. Credit: Paul Kolnik Photo

It's sharp and snappy, imaginative and heartfelt. It has a real American tragedy to tell and some of the best in the business to tell it.

We want to love "The Scottsboro Boys," which opened on Broadway after an Off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre and further development at the Guthrie in Minneapolis. We want to be shredded by the horrible framing of nine innocent young black men in Alabama for the rape of two white women in Alabama in 1931. We want to be wowed by the audacity of staging the tale in the inflammatory form of an old minstrel show.

And yet it is hard to work up more than admiration for the labor of love with the lofty intentions and self-explanatory conclusions.

The letdown is especially keen because of the unfinished score that composer John Kander completed after the legendary team's lyricist Fred Ebb died in 2004. The subject has all the dark and edgy innards - injustice, outrage, irony - that incited them to the gritty heights of "Cabaret" and "Chicago."

Besides, the show has been smartly directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, a Kander and Ebb specialist before Mel Brooks had even heard her name. Using just a bunch of silver-painted chairs and a hanging crooked picture frame, she and her wonderful cast toggle between formal scenes of racial vaudeville and the jail/courtroom locations of Dixie justice.

John Cullum has just the right curdled politesse as the Interlocutor, the white emcee who gathers the "boys" in a half circle and exhorts them to "put on those bright faces that make people so happy." Joshua Henry (new since Off-Broadway) beautifully wrenches us through the contradictions of minstrel stereotypes and the terrible truth as he asks that, this once, they be allowed to tell the Scottsboro story "like it really happened."

Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon find the menace in the razzle-dazzle as the minstrel leaders, all the white bigots and the equally stereotyped New York Jewish lawyer. And a young talent named Jeremy Gumbs is outstanding as the accused boy who doesn't even know what rape means, but does a chilling tap dance around the electric chair.

Ultimately, alas, the songs aren't tough or surprising enough to take us beyond contrasts of tragedy and minstrelsy. Admiration doesn't feel big enough for this.

INFO: At the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., $39.50-$131.50, 212-239-6200; scottsboromusical.com

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