David Thompson

History Via Minstrelsy

Review of The Scottsboro Boys, Playhouse on Park

As composers of musicals, John Kander and Fred Ebb have a knack for subject matter potentially unsettling. Their Cabaret is having a resurgence in Connecticut, with three productions in 2019, and for obvious reasons. The rise of Nazism in Berlin in the uneasy 1930s finds a ready parallel in the swerve to the Right in many countries in the dwindling twenty-teens of this century.  

At Playhouse on Park through August 4 is a musical by Kander and his late partner Ebb, with book by David Thompson, that is just as timely. The Scottsboro Boys returns to a staggering miscarriage of justice in 1930s’ Alabama that makes us revisit the long, hard fight for civil rights for African Americans in the twentieth century. And it also comments tellingly on the staggering miscarriages of justice that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013—three years after the show opened and closed on Broadway.

The cast of Playhouse on Park’s production of The Scottsboro Boys, directed by Sean Harris (Photographs by Meredith Longo)

The cast of Playhouse on Park’s production of The Scottsboro Boys, directed by Sean Harris (Photographs by Meredith Longo)

At the time there were raised eyebrows—and outright protests—that a modern musical would adapt the manner of the minstrel show, a racist form of entertainment in which white performers, in blackface, imitated and caricatured blacks. Yet the minstrel show format brings to the Scottsboro Boys’ story both a vitality and an irony that would not be easily attainable otherwise. To have these engaging and entertaining actors dancing and singing about such a prickly topic would be unthinkable without the frame: we’re watching a cast who, under the imprimatur of their “master,” the Interlocutor and only white cast member (Dennis Holland, condescendingly grand), are forced to put on a jovial version of an injustice. The vitality comes from the fact that the minstrel show, as a form, influenced so much musical comedy, and the irony comes from the performers as knowing commentators on caricatures.

The story: the “boys” were nine African American youths from age 13 to 20 who were riding a train they had hopped—mostly separately—from Chattanooga to Memphis. A fight broke out when white rail-riders tried to force the blacks off the train. The whites reported to the sheriff in Alabama that they had been attacked, and the nine were detained. Two white women who had also hopped the train (and were possibly soliciting) accused the youths of raping them. With a lynch mob forming, the nine were tried without adequate counsel and were convicted and sentenced to death, despite the medical examiner’s evidence that the women had not been raped. Protests and support from the north—including the NAACP and the U.S. Communist Party—eventually brought about a retrial with Samuel Leibowitz of New York representing the accused. They were found guilty again, though one of the accusers recanted her earlier charge. Retrials continued and eventually, through certain plea deals, the four youngest of the nine were allowed to go free. Another was shot, nonfatally, for attacking a guard, two others escaped. Eventually—but not until 2013!—the three unpardoned were granted posthumous pardons. All had been burdened by their conviction, imprisonment, and the lengthy and publicized trials that continued to uphold the earliest verdict without sufficient evidence (the nine, in their individual defenses, gave contrary evidence as well, at times accusing one or some of the others).

Bones (Ivory Mckay), Tambo (Torrey Linder)

Bones (Ivory Mckay), Tambo (Torrey Linder)

Key to the spin The Scottsboro Boys gives to this material are the traditional minstrel-show roles of Bones (Ivory Mckay) and Tambo (Torrey Linder), two showmen, both excellent, who abound in bad puns, overt silliness, and who project a double-edged awareness that satirizes the conventions of the show as well as the outrageousness of the story the musical tells. They enact a racist white sheriff and his deputy, white lawyers (including a drunk-as-a-skunk defense attorney), and guards. Their obvious fun with these caricatures of caricatures gives even the obvious and corny aspects of the humor its bite. And their showdown in the retrial, as the anti-Semitic Attorney General (Mckay) vs. Leibowitz (Linder), shows how playing upon prejudices will often carry the day.. 

Granted, the Scottsboro story doesn’t have the trajectory of a well-made plot and the collective villainy of the authorities confers a questionable heroism on the nine accused, simply by virtue of being innocent. That means that most of the show’s strength comes from how well it arouses sympathy for the hapless predicament of the accused nine. As Haywood Patterson, who is presented as the strongest willed among them, Troy Valjean Rucker draws attention early in the show with “Nothin’”—a song that sums up a world-weary ethos—and later with “You Can’t Do Me,” a song that registers his unwillingness to admit guilt even if it means getting a pardon. Another standout number is “Never Too Late,” with Jaylan Evans as Ruby Bates, who makes her courtroom retraction an over-the-top, high-stepping vaudeville number.

Center, seated: Heywood Patterson (Troy Valjean Rucker) and Eugene Williams (Trishawn Paul) with the cast of The Scottsboro Boys

Center, seated: Heywood Patterson (Troy Valjean Rucker) and Eugene Williams (Trishawn Paul) with the cast of The Scottsboro Boys

The songs are full of zest, and a few early on—like the anxious “Electric Chair” and the stirring “Go Back Home”—benefit from Trishawn Paul’s lovely tenor. Choreographer Darlene Zoller and director Sean Harris, two of the three founders of Playhouse on Park, maintain the high standard in ending their tenth season that they brought to last season’s closer, In the Heights. While not as exuberant and contemporary as the latter, The Scottsboro Boys earns admiration for its nimble handling of shameful truths—the farce of injustice and overt racism—and for its stripped-down design—which makes the show feel almost improvised—and for keeping its audience in the palm of its hand from the glad-to-meet-you opening to the point at which the troupe departs the frame.

Throughout the show its only female cast member, Renee J. Sutherland, is onstage as “the lady,” an African American woman holding a book and looking on as witness aghast at what she sees, and possibly as researcher encountering this almost forgotten story. At the close of the show, her identity is revealed to show a continuity with what Thompson and company most likely saw as the dawn of a more enlightened age. In any case, reminders are necessary.

 

The Scottsboro Boys
Music and Lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb
Book by David Thompson
Directed by Sean Harris
 

Orchestrations: Larry Hochman; Musical Arrangements: Glen Kelly; Vocal Arrangements: David Loud; Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Johann Fitzpatrick; Costume Designer: Vilinda McGregor; Props Artisan/Set Dresser: Eileen O’Connor; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook

Cast: Cedrick Ekra, Jaylan Evans, Cedric Greene, Jerry Hamilton, Dennis Holland, Torrey Linder, Ivory McKay, Trishawn Paul, Grant Reynolds, Alex Robertson, Troy Valjean Rucker, Justin Sturgis, Renee J. Sutherland

Playhouse on Park
June 26-August 4, 2019

Immigrant Experience, Revisited

Review of Rags, Goodspeed

The challenges are many for the current Goodspeed production of Rags, the new, heavily revamped version of a musical that first ran on Broadway, briefly, in 1986, and received several revisions in the 1990s. How to compress the “immigrant experience”—so various, so multicultural—into the book for a musical? How to remain true to the spirit of a long bygone era while also tapping into current sensibilities? How to stage tenements and factories and city streets? How to revisit by now familiar struggles without falling into sentimental cliché?

Have no fears, Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz—who came up with new songs—and David Thompson—who wrote the new book for the show—and Rob Ruggiero—who directs with sure pacing—have figured it out. The show is full of many successful touches and the whole jells together to make an involving musical with its heart and head in the right place.

Ellis Island official (Jeff Williams), Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell), David Hershkowitz (Christian Michael Camporin) (photos credit: Diane Sobolewski)

Ellis Island official (Jeff Williams), Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell), David Hershkowitz (Christian Michael Camporin) (photos credit: Diane Sobolewski)

Thompson went back to the earliest intentions of the author of the original book, Joseph “Fiddler on the Roof” Stein. Then, Rags was about an immigrant Jewish family with a patriarch; now, it’s about Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell), a widowed immigrant with a young son, David (Christian Michael Camporin). Key to Thompson’s new conception is that Rebecca finds shelter with the Cohen family—father Avram (Adam Heller) and daughter Bella (Sara Kapner) in a tenement flat where brother-in-law Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg) runs a cottage industry, producing dresses with his wife Anna (Emily Zacharias), for uptown magnate Max Bronfman (David Harris).

The “rags” of the title—already an implied reference to half of the phrase “rags to riches”—are now literalized as part of the activity of sewing. In an early scene, the working of the production line is sung about in a jaunty way by Jack and the others (“Fabric of America”), including schlepper turned sewing-machine operator Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone). It’s a clever way to evoke “rags” and “fabric” while also creating a scene of entertaining choreography—the dance of work (Parker Esse, choreographer).

Rebecca (Samantha Massell), Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), Bella Cohen (Sara Kapner), Anna Blumberg (Emily Zacharias)

Rebecca (Samantha Massell), Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), Bella Cohen (Sara Kapner), Anna Blumberg (Emily Zacharias)

Key to the show’s success is Ruggerio’s less is more approach. The mainstay of Michael Schweikardt’s versatile set is a detailed, condensed, two-sided flat that spins between the bedroom / living room / workroom and the kitchen, where the Shabbat ceremony is staged in a manner both playful and pious. In such scenes, the older generation—Zacharias, Greenberg, Heller—shines, looking and acting very much the part. The outside world is suggested by tenement-block backgrounds and by greatly enhancing projection designs by Luke Cantarella, which help to convey the immigrant experience with stills and sometimes scurrilous cartoons of the era. Lindo Cho’s costume designs make for some telling contrasts on July Fourth, and help show off Rebecca’s way with a dress.

Another great asset here is Massell’s vibrant Rebecca. Her talents as a seamstress lead her to the fast track, thanks to seductive employer, Bronfman (David Harris is suitably charming and unctuous, reminiscent, perhaps deliberately, of the rich, German playboy in Bob Fosse’s film of Cabaret). Rebecca’s teetering between her earliest American attachments and the stylings of the moneyed create her character’s conflict. Massell’s voice can be stirring, as in “Rags,” an aggrieved song against bigotry that closes Act One, and nicely intimate, as in the roof-top romantic number, “Blame It on the Summer Night” with downstairs Italian neighbor Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin). She also plays maternal well in her scenes with David.

Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin), Rebecca Hershowitz (Samantha Massell), David Hershowitz (Christian Michael Camporin)

Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin), Rebecca Hershowitz (Samantha Massell), David Hershowitz (Christian Michael Camporin)

Special mention goes to the youngest member of the cast and to one of the elder: as young David, Christian Michael Camporin turns in a nicely convincing performance with a strong, clear singing voice, and, as Avram, Adam Heller played my favorite character, adding wit and weightiness whenever needed. His scenes with Lori Wilner as Rachel Brodsky, a street peddler who takes a shine to him, are charming and give us “Three Sunny Rooms,” her not-so-coy come on that displays Schwartz’s ease with a clever lyric. On that score, making worker Ben a would-be songwriter strikes close to home, and Salstone gives “Yankee Boy” old-time moxie and puts beauty into “Bella’s Song.”

Rachel Brodsky (Lori Wilner), Avram Cohen (Adam Heller)

Rachel Brodsky (Lori Wilner), Avram Cohen (Adam Heller)

The romance between Ben and Bella may be a bit underdeveloped and, in general, the tragic dimension of the show feels a bit shoe-horned in for a point. Still, it is a good point and brings in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster as a telling reminder of the evils faced by immigrant populations in their efforts to contribute to the fabric of America and make a good start. The disaster feeds into the labor union activities of neighbor Sal, played with conviction by MacLaughlin. Indeed, making this character an Italian adds both comedy—in his song “Meet an Italian” where stereotypes are compared tongue-in-cheek style—and nicely staged rituals in duet: “Shabbos / Latin Mass.”

The Quintet (Jeff Williams, Sarah Solie, Danny Lindgren, Ellie Fishman, J.D. Saw)

The Quintet (Jeff Williams, Sarah Solie, Danny Lindgren, Ellie Fishman, J.D. Saw)

Another nice touch is the use of “the Quintet” (J.D. Daw, Ellie Fishman, Danny Lindgren, Sarah Solie, Jeff Williams) who mostly play a group of old school bigots—er, patriots—whose America looks down on, and tries to keep down, any members of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free in their country. It’s a useful reminder that the exclusionary nature of U.S. exceptionalism didn’t begin with the Orange Menace. To that end, the defamation a Jewish mother aims at Catholics, and the violence Irish toughs visit upon Jewish women and children remind how closely akin “neighborhoods” could be to “ghettos.” One the one hand, where people who are alike feel comfortable together; on the other, where people “like that” are forced to remain “where they belong.”

center: Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin) and the cast of Rags

center: Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin) and the cast of Rags

In distinction to Goodspeed’s earlier shows this season—the greatly entertaining Thoroughly Modern Millie and a nearly definitive Oklahoma!Rags doesn’t aim for anything like the same level of big dances and choruses, but it does let our country’s strengths and inconsistencies shine through in a way that recalls folk opera. Particularly, it shows us how resourceful and inspired immigrants can be in response to the challenges of the new, and how worrisome it is that they came here for liberty and found bigotry.

The repairs to Joseph Stein’s old suit of a show have produced spruce new duds. Stein’s tale has been lovingly re-purposed in a way that does the original conception proud, while also finding new heart in a more straight-forward and timely tale. This show may go from rags to riches yet.

Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), David Hershkowitz (Christian Michael Camporin), Avram Cohen (Adam Heller), Bella Cohen (Sara Kapner)

Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), David Hershkowitz (Christian Michael Camporin), Avram Cohen (Adam Heller), Bella Cohen (Sara Kapner)

 

 

Rags
Book by Joseph Stein
Music by Charles Strouse
Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Revised Book by David Thompson

Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty
Choreographed by Parker Esse
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Scenic Design: Michael Schweikardt; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Projection Design: Luke Cantarella; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Fight Director: Ron Piretti; Assistant Music Director: William J. Thomas; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Vocal Arrangements: David Loud; Dialect Coach: Ben Furey; Casting: Paul Hardt, Stewart/Whitley Casting; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman; Associate Producer: Bob Alwine; Line Producer: Donna Lynn, Cooper Hilton; General Manager: Rachel J. Tischler

Cast: Gordon Beck, Christian Michael Camporin, J.D. Daw, Giovanni DiGabriele, Ellie Fishman, Catalina Gaglioti, Mitch Greenberg, David Harris, Adam Heller, Sara Kapner, Danny Lindgren, Sean MacLaughlin, Samantha Massell, Nathan Salstone, Sarah Solie, Jeff Williams, Lori Wilner, Emily Zacharias

Goodspeed Musicals
from October 6, 2017