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The Scottsboro Boys review at Young Vic London

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Broadway has already sent The Book of Mormon and Once to London this year. Now, though, arguably the boldest and most radically realised (as well as energised) of Broadway’s recent roster has arrived at the Young Vic, where it dovetails beautifully with artistic director David Lan’s desire for more adventurous theatre, as well as black-themed work.

The surprise is that it ever played Broadway in the first place. But it is worth remembering that it was a fast flop there, chalking up a run of only 49 performances after it transferred from Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre in October 2010. The Young Vic, though, now provides the ideal intimate physical home for its London transfer, as well as its perfect cultural home.

For John Kander and Fred Ebb, its veteran Broadway creative team of composer and lyricist who worked together for more than four decades before Ebb’s death in 2004, it’s a landmark show: not just on account of being the only show in their extensive canon to be built primarily around black characters, but also for extending and amplifying the use of a framing theatrical device that they’d previously put to such powerful effect in their two biggest hits, Cabaret and Chicago. Those shows set their narratives against a sultry Berlin cabaret and sassy Chicago vaudevillian entertainment respectively; each provided a point of comfortable identification for their disquieting stories of the rise of Nazism and how murderers in 1920s America became celebrities.

In The Scottsboro Boys, they’ve chosen a historically uncomfortable theatrical form to tell an even more chastening tale of American injustice, and it creates a bold tension that underscores the show throughout. By staging this dark, ugly tale as a minstrel show, it stands this appalling, true story of a wrongful accusation that destroyed the lives of its nine young black defendants, aged just 13 to 19, on its head. The audience is made to confront its own complicity and powerlessness in the blatant racism that led to their fate. The boys are entirely innocent; it is the system that is guilty.

We’re being asked to enjoy this terrible story as an amazingly performed display of high theatrical gloss to create another ripe tension: you are constantly checking yourself about how appropriate it is to delight in such thrilling choreography and its jazzy score against such a backdrop.

Susan Stroman’s vivacious production is so pugnaciously and powerfully enjoyable that it all but silences any such doubts. The integrity comes from the fierce commitment of its ensemble cast, several of them imported from the original Broadway production led by Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon as Mr Bones and Mr Tambo, our comedic commentators to the proceedings, joined by British performers who include Julian Glover as the interlocutor who, like the emcee in Cabaret, guides and directs the action.

The production is a must-see for anyone who cares about the possibilities for musicals to be simultaneously serious yet scintillating. I doubt it could have a commercial life beyond the Young Vic, but I’m thrilled that the UK is getting the chance to see it at all.

Production Information

Young Vic, London, October 18-December 21

David Thompson (book), John Kander, Fred Ebb (music and lyrics)
Susan Stroman
Musical director
Robert Scott
Young Vic, Catherine Schreiber
Cast includes
Colman Domingo, Forrest McClendon, Julian Glover, Christian Dante White, James T Lane, Dawn Hope, Kyle Scatliffe
Running time
1hr 50mins

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