Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
May 11, 2012
Vaudeville is back – with its kissing cousins, follies and minstrel shows. These stylized forms of entertainment may have objectified women and blacks. But in two brilliant musical creations, their ebullience is used to tell a darker story – in the Sondheim classic, “Follies,” and the more recent, controversial show, “The Scottsboro Boys.”
“Scottsboro,” one of the last collaborations by musical theater greats, composer John Kander and the late lyricist, Fred Ebb, premiered on Broadway in 2010. The high-octane show tells the sad, true tale of nine young African Americans, strangers ranging in age from 13 –19, riding the rails in Alabama, looking for work during the Depression, in 1931. Out of nowhere, they’re framed, falsely accused of raping two white women who were also on the train. Journalists at the time referred to the travesty of a trial as a “minstrel show.” So that’s just what its creators made of it – a high-kicking, over-the-top purveyor of stereotypes. Black singers and dancers perform the exaggerated, Stepin Fetchit routines, even putting on blackface, to tell the sordid story.
Throw in a New York Jewish lawyer and you’ve got a bucketful of Dixie racism and anti-Semitism. The truth in the details makes it all the more discomfiting and unnerving. And that’s the whole point.
The celebrated Broadway director/choreographer Susan Stroman helms the West coast premiere, a co-production of the Old Globe and San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre. It’s a stunning production, sharply conceived, ingeniously designed, gorgeously sung and danced. There are many squirm-inducing moments, especially when the terrifically talented cast parodies and caricatures African Americans. But at the end, they take off the blackface and repudiate the whole endeavor, leaving behind the suggestion that their suffering later inspired the Civil Rights movement.
This unique and incandescent show gets you in the gut. You marvel at the clever conceit, the wonderful music, the sheer imagination of it all. You laugh, and you gasp. This is must-see theater – provocative, stirring, dispiriting, amazing. Do not miss it.
And if you’re a musical theater aficionado, you won’t miss the rare opportunity to see one of Stephen Sondheim’s biggest and best musicals. Almost the entire, highly acclaimed Broadway cast of “Follies” has come to the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A. And they are fantastic, belting out Sondheim’s most beautiful, hummable, romantically bittersweet score. The costumes are sumptuous, the emotions and memories intense. A group of graying performers has come back to the Weissmann Follies theater one last time, before it’s demolished, to recall and relive their heyday in the ‘30s, to reminisce and express their regrets. Most are miserable, their lives and relationships a failure. Their dreams didn’t come true. But they recount them in the most glorious ways.
You wouldn’t think so, but discontent and miscarriage of justice make for marvelous musicals.
“The Scottsboro Boys” runs through June 10 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
“Follies” continues through June 9 at the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A.
©2012 PAT LAUNER