Kander and Ebb’s final team effort recounts the false conviction of nine black teenagers in the Depression-era South.
This last collaboration between the Cabaret and Chicago team of John Kander and Fred Ebb—Ebb passed away before it was completed—took its time to find a Chicago premiere following its 2010 Broadway bow. And though Samuel G. Roberson Jr.’s production for Porchlight is smart and savvy, featuring a ridiculously stacked cast and first-rate music direction by Doug Peck, you can see why those in position to produce it might have dragged their feet.
Hinging on the same sorry episode in American history that fueled Raven Theatre’s recent massive hit Direct from Death Row The Scottsboro Boys, Kander and Ebb’s musical takes up the cause of nine black teenage boys who were falsely convicted in 1931 Alabama of raping two white women. The Scottsboro Boys, as they came to be known in the media, languished through multiple trials and mistrials; even the few of the group who were eventually released from prison never fully recovered from the allegations.
The Scottsboro Boys takes the oppressive form of an old-fashioned minstrel show to depict this true-life miscarriage of justice. A single white character, known as the Interlocutor (Larry Yando, sui generis), oversees the re-enactment, aided by a pair of black jester types who play everyone from the boys’ accusers to their attorneys. Mark J.P. Hood and Denzel Tsopnang are effectively infuriating in those roles.
But with nine young men among the accused, Kander, Ebb and book writer David Thompson understandably have a difficult time fleshing out each of the wronged characters. The splendidly powerful James Earl Jones II gets the most to work with as Haywood Patterson, who becomes the group’s de facto leader in this telling. But aside from 14-year-old Cameron Goode as the youngest and Jerome Riley Jr. as the one who knows how to write, none of the rest get much to distinguish them, and with a dozen or more actors crowded into Stage 773’s small proscenium space, the field often feels overcrowded. Up until one particular, devastating stage picture at the show’s climax, the telling can feel rather dry, and the way the writers use a single female actor is manipulative and mawkish. But come for that one late moment, and for the music, rendered with stirring power.
Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773. Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Book by David Thompson. Directed by Samuel G. Roberson Jr. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 50mins; no intermission.