Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of The Scottsboro Boys satirically presents a true story in the controversial style of the minstrel show. There is no doubting that the musical, which chronicles the injustice faced by nine wrongly convicted African-American teenagers on trial in Memphis, is relevant, especially to Chicago audiences. Nominated for 12 Tony Awards in 2010, the concept of the musical certainly presents a chilling juxtaposition; however, director Samuel Roberson Jr.’s somewhat tentative production lacks the tonal punch necessary to be fully affecting.
Featuring music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb–famed for their work on Cabaret and Chicago—The Scottsboro Boys centers on Heywood Patterson (James Earl Jones II) and eight other African-American boys riding a freight train in search of a better life in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Sung near the top of the show, “Commencing in Chattanooga” is a catchy and ebullient start to their story. Along with songs like “Go Back Home” and “Never Too Late,” it illustrates Kander and Ebb’s talent for crafting songs with both emotional and narrative heft.
As Heywood, Jones carries many of these songs, and his voice and acting ability particularly shine performing “Nothin’,” a defense of his and his companions’ innocence. While the heart of Kander and Ebb’s score is present throughout the production, the piece doesn’t always deliver on the caustic ramifications of its satirical premise. Roberson’s staging steps towards these implications in moments when the cast mugs to the audience after lines that ironically poke at the injustice of the time.
The framing device of the minstrel show is run by The Interlocutor, the one white member of Scottsboro’s cast, played in this production by Larry Yando. Yando imbues both a wryness and manic quality to the Interlocutor’s proceedings as he forces the ensemble through the motions of their performance. He has a commanding stage presence, and, in some ways sets the bar higher than other members in the cast can reach. Florence Walker-Harris’ choreography, although accurate to the era and genre, is at times performed tentatively.
Overall, Porchlight’s The Scottsboro Boys delivers less than its intriguing concept promises. Its relevance in 2017 is undeniable; however, relevance alone isn’t enough, especially in a city with upwards of 50 performances playing weekly. With bolder choices, this historical musical by a talented songwriting duo could be just as impacting as its premise pledges.
The Scottsboro Boys is presented by Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, through March 12. The performance schedule is Thursdays at 7:30pm (except March 2), Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. There is an added matinee performance at 1:3opm Thursday, March 2. Tickets run $45-51 and may be purchased at PorchlightMusicTheatre.org or by calling 773-327-5252.