Review – The Scottsboro Boys, Garrick Theatre, 29th December 2014

The Scottsboro BoysThe Scottsboro Boys is based on a true story of racial prejudice and injustice in Alabama, a sequence of events that started in 1931. Nine black teenagers, none of whom knew each other at the time, were on a train going about their various business, doing or seeking work somewhere around Chattanooga, when they were accused by two white girls, also on the same train, of rape. The case became something of a cause celebre, with the boys adamantly protesting their innocence, but unfair trial after unfair trial found them guilty, even when one of the alleged victims withdrew her accusation. It wasn’t until 1937 that the rape charges against the four youngest boys were dropped, 1976 when the last of the defendants was officially declared not guilty, and, incredibly, 2013 before they were all pardoned. As the show reveals, the majority of them went on to lead variously tragic lives, in and out of prison, including suicide, manslaughter, and mental illness.

Garrick TheatreSounds like a bundle of laughs, doesn’t it? It’s taken us a very long time to see this show. It opened at the Young Vic in October 2013 to great success, and then transferred to the Garrick last autumn, where it is scheduled to stay until 21st February. So Mrs Chrisparkle and I were pleased to get the chance to see it whilst we still could. As we were enjoying our pre-show lunch, we were talking about what little we knew (shame on us) about the case of the Scottsboro Boys, and how we expected it to be rather serious and sad. “…And it’s a musical?” asked Mrs C. “How are they going to make a story like that into a musical, without ridiculing or belittling the people involved?” A good question.

Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendonThe answer is a stroke of genius. It’s not a serious, mournful sub-opera, but a song-and-dancey modern take on the traditional American Minstrel show, looking at its obvious potential for accusations of racism fair and square in the face, just as the American people themselves had to at the time. It follows the structure of the Minstrel show in great detail, with the performers sitting in a semi-circle, the characters of Bones and Tambo (named after their musical instruments) on the far ends each playing the fool, and with the whole thing MC’d by an interlocutor, in this case – unusually – played by a white actor, to strengthen the suggestion of racial injustice. It’s a bold strategy, but it really works, as, while revelling in the immense talent and skills of the performers, enjoying the comedy, and loving the music and dancing, nevertheless you spend a lot of the show considering how very un-PC all this is today.

Brandon Victor DixonBut that’s the point – it’s that telling juxtaposition between what’s appropriate on a stage and what occurred in 1930s Alabama that is the driving force behind this show. Whilst the content is disturbing, the style is pizzazzy, and the challenge for the audience is to appreciate both equally. It’s full of surprises. There’s a moment near the end when some of the characters are telling the audience directly what was to become of them in the years and decades to follow. One character says he became a cop so he could finally find out what it was like to hold and use a gun – cue genuine laugh from the audience. Then you find out what he did with it and it was one of those Ayckbournian moments when your laughter gets caught in your throat. The ever-present unnamed lady, watching the action, occasionally adding gestures and reactions, seems an irrelevant and unnecessary add-on for much of the time until you finally realise her significance, which beautifully links the whole Scottsboro saga to the rest of the fight for racial equality in America.

Bones and TamboIt’s not surprising this is such a great production. The music and lyrics are by Kander and Ebb, creators of such masterpieces as Cabaret and Chicago (although Mrs C will point out they also wrote Curtains which we saw on Broadway in 2008 and which she, in particular, hated). Scottsboro Boys was actually one of the last shows they worked on together, as Fred Ebb died in 2004, and composer John Kander had to complete the lyrics to a few of the songs himself. Those songs have beautiful melodies but hard-hitting lyrics which bring you up short, as you might expect from the sweet/sour structure of the whole show.

Scottsboro BoysThen you have direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, who put together the amazing Contact that we saw in 2002 (perhaps we should draw a veil over the fact that she also worked on the Menier’s Paradise Found – not an easy show by any means but within some rewrites of being good). Phil Cornwell’s orchestra recreates that American Dixie sound beautifully, with plenty of banjo twanging and high-falutin’ fiddling, and it’s all set on an eminently useful blank stage, with just some very versatile chairs that can link together to suggest any structure you want (plus they’re also good for just sitting on.) The backdrop consists of a couple of massive picture frames suspended without the aid of a spirit level, nicely suggestive of having to look at life through wonky angles.

Brandon V DixonAdded to all that, you have an amazing cast made up of some of the finest singers and dancers you could ever hope to grace any stage. Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon play Mr Bones and Mr Tambo, dressed to the nines like a Robertson’s Golly, combining great physical comedy with verbal dexterity to recreate the traditional Minstrel show roles but doubling up as sheriffs, lawyers, attorneys and guards to emphasise the funny/serious contrast. They are an incredible double act. James T Lane, wonderful as Richie in A Chorus Line, continues to show his amazing dance skills as Ozie Powell; and gives a really heart-breaking performance after his character survives being shot by a guard. Keenan Munn-FrancisWe both really enjoyed the performance of Keenan Munn-Francis as the youngest boy Eugene Williams, showing terrific song and dance skills as well as great comic timing – he’s definitely going to be Someone To Watch. But in fact all the cast perform with great commitment, juggling the dual aspects of tough injustice with sheer entertainment.

Julian GloverVeteran actor Julian Glover, whom I have admired ever since I saw him play Coriolanus at the RSC in 1978, gives a powerful performance as The Interlocutor. A southern gentleman dressed all in white with a touch of the Uncle Sam; slightly manic, physically still strong but with a sense of slight fragility, playing the show-must-go-on role of Master of Ceremonies, whilst occasionally stepping out of his bonhomie to become savagely aggressive to his colleagues, it’s a brilliant performance. But for me the star of the show was undoubtedly the splendid Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson – a brilliant stage presence, great voice, and with amazing powers of communicating the character’s dignity and sadness. I know he’s had some success in America but he was new to me, and I have no hesitation in saying A Star Is Born. Overall, The Scottsboro Boys is a brilliantly envisioned show, masterfully presented and performed with wit, pathos and a helluva lot of great song and dance. We loved it.

Alabama LadiesPS. It’s a pet hate of mine, so I must say it – I would have preferred it to have an interval. At 1 hour and 45 minutes non-stop, no matter how good it is, I always end up shifting the buttocks and stifling (or giving in to) a yawn. Yes I’m old fashioned, but I like to stretch the legs, get some oxygen flowing, have a chance to chat about it so far with Mrs C, use the facilities and so on. The modern trend is to rush through the show in one gulp so you can get out of the theatre more quickly and Do Other Things. Apparently I’m in the minority by preferring to have intervals. I can live with that.

Review – A Chorus Line, London Palladium, 23rd February 2013

A Chorus Line 2013Probably not so much of a review, more a reverie…anyone who knows me well – especially if you’ve known me for many years – will know that A Chorus Line is my favourite show of all time. I first saw it featuring the Toronto cast when I was 16 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on 29th December 1976 (matinee – yes I am that anal) and before I had reached 17 the following April I had seen it twice more. By the time the run closed I had seen it 8 times, including the last night. I remember spectacular, moving performances from the British cast – including Diane Langton, Michael Staniforth, Petra Siniawski, Geraldine Gardner, Stephen Tate, and many others. Alas some of them are no longer with us. Then Mrs Chrisparkle and I took the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to see a touring production in Oxford in 1987 (Cassie played by Caroline O’Connor, Maggie was a 19-year-old Ruthie Henshall); there was a production about ten years ago (if not more) at the Sheffield Crucible; and then Mrs C and I saw it in New York in 2008 during a week’s holiday. And now, it has come back to London, and the prospect of seeing it again made me bristle with excitement.

A Chorus Line 1976You know the basic story of this show, don’t you? It’s an audition for eight places in the chorus to back the star in some unnamed Broadway musical. Zach the director has the unenviable task of whittling down the 24 or so wannabes to a shortlist of 17, then the final eight. Their personalities are dissected; their dance abilities scrutinised; their attitudes tested. At first, you join in with the selection process, and pick who you would like to get through. But at some point, your admiration for them all means you cannot choose between them, and you just will them all to succeed. My attitude to this show has never changed, all through the decades. It takes young, ambitious and talented dancers who otherwise never get to shine on stage, and brings them into the full gaze of “the line”, thereby giving them a character voice they don’t normally get and exposing the fragility of their lives and careers. It’s full of respect and understanding, and it taught the young me an awful lot about life and people. It’s also very funny, very sad and has the most wonderful expressive choreography by the late Michael Bennett. The songs are showstoppers. I can’t see why it wouldn’t be everyone’s favourite show.

Toronto Cast 1976So you can understand that I have some difficulty trying to observe this show and describe it reasonably impartially! What I am genuinely delighted is that it remains more or less precisely the same as it was nearly forty years ago, and that it can still pack out the Palladium and get a standing ovation. Mind you, I’m sure that the audience – first Saturday evening after press night – was full of fans from the old days. As far as I could tell, the choreography and costumes were unchanged, the set (which is just a few mirrors and a sparkly backdrop at the end) is the same, the songs are the same, and there are just a few minor changes to the text.

London Cast 1977Those changes are very interesting in themselves. When Judy (a delightfully dotty and heart-warming performance by Lucy Jane Adcock) first introduces herself, she says her name is Judy Turner, but “my real name is Tina Turner!” Cue a “ta-da!” pose and affectionate laughter. This has been modernised from the 1970s’ “my real name is Lana Turner!” Same “ta-da!” pose. I’m not entirely sure why. Sure, today I don’t suppose many theatregoers will be overly moved by likening someone to a film actress who died aged 74 in 1995. However, the show is full of other references to stars of yesteryear – Troy Donohue (died 2001), Steve McQueen (died 1980), George Hamilton (still alive at 73), Robert Goulet (died 2007), Maria Tallchief (still alive at 88). I’m not sure why poor Lana Turner has been kicked into touch whilst the others are still part of the show.

UK Touring Cast 1987Another text change shows a significant movement in what’s considered humorous material. In the sequence “And….”, Val originally sang, “Orphan at 3, Orphan at 3, Mother and Dad both gone, Raised by a sweet ex-con, Tied up and raped at 7, Seriously, Seriously, Nothing too obscene, I’d better keep it clean”. In this production, the “tied up and raped at 7” line had been replaced by something much more anodyne (I’m afraid I can’t remember the replacement line) but which didn’t really make sense when she went on to say “nothing too obscene” – as the replacement line hadn’t been obscene at all. I guess the powers that be just think that kind of reference is no longer appropriate in the 21st century.

Lucy Jane AdcockThe other change – which kind of makes sense – is that the dancers no longer give the year in which they were born in their introduction. In the first production, they were all born in the early 1950s. That would sound odd to today’s audience, even though the setting makes it clear that we are in 1975. In the Oxford production, if I remember rightly, they brought forward the years by about ten so that it still sounded believable. I think in the Sheffield production they went back to the 1950s birth dates – and at the Palladium, they just say I was born April 13th (or whatever) and I’m 25 (or whatever). The trouble with that is that Zach doesn’t really want to know the birth date – after all, he’s not going to buy them a birthday card or check their horoscope – he just wants to know their age. So the birth date part of this sequence, rather like committing suicide in Buffalo, is redundant.

John Partridge Apart from that, it very much is the original article. I’m sure back in the old days it used to run for just over 2 hours 10 minutes, but they seem to have shaved five minutes off it now. Maybe they’re dancing a little faster! There’s still no interval – something that Mrs C reminds me I am normally very critical of in other shows – but for me it is completely appropriate that it runs straight through without stopping, as any break would arrest the momentum of the show. Anyway I think it was ground-breaking at the time to have no interval. Any production team nowadays, who simply want to wrap up and go home early, go for the “no-interval” option.

Scarlett Strallen It’s a great cast of superb dancers and actors – I understand they all had to attend “boot camp” held by Baayork Lee (the original Connie) to get into shape before rehearsals started, and it shows. One of the great things about A Chorus Line is that it is “the ensemble show par excellence”. Misleadingly the producers revealed early on who would be performing the “star roles” of Zach, Cassie, Sheila and Diana, which somewhat misses the point of the show itself – as Cassie herself says “we’re all special. He’s special – she’s special. And Sheila, and Richie and Connie. They’re all special.” However, let’s take those star roles first.

Leigh ZimmermannJohn Partridge is Zach the director. Of all the Zachs I’ve seen, he feels far and away the most closely associated with the rest of the dancers. Sometimes Zach can be aloof to the point of hostility, but this Zach works with the dancers’ responses with the greatest sense of understanding and appreciation that I can remember – and it really benefits as a result. Zach’s still a rather scary powerhouse of directorial pizzazz; you wouldn’t choose to waste his time. But I found his reading of the role really credible. It’s full of energy and authority; and when he joins the rest of the cast for the One Singular Sensation closing number, you have never seen a performer look so happy to be out there on stage. Some friends also went to see the same performance – they booked separately and so we didn’t sit together – and they were seated alongside Mr Partridge at the back of the theatre, as his voice booms mystically from the dark. Apparently he genuinely checks all the characters against their resumés as the show progresses. Who knew?

Victoria Hamilton-Barritt Scarlett Strallen is Cassie – and first of all I must say that she performs The Music and The Mirror with extraordinary artistry and movement; I really loved it. She can pop the hip for me anytime. Her painful recollections of a career that never took off are movingly relived, and the “dirty linen” sequence when she and Zach pick over the remains of their previous relationship has tangible bitterness and disappointment. Again, another superb performance.

Vicki Lee TaylorSheila is played by Leigh Zimmermann, whom we last saw many years ago in Susan Stroman’s Contact. Perfect casting for the seen-it-all, done-it-all, world-weary but still with a mischievous sparkle, Sheila. When she opens up her heart in At The Ballet you feel like it’s a genuine insight into the parts of her character she wants kept locked up. And her last distant look at Zach, at the end of the show, says everything about ambition, bravery, distress and sadness. Really beautifully done.

Adam SalterVictoria Hamilton-Barritt is Diana, and something of a revelation, as I’ve not seen her before and she’s really terrific! She put her heart and soul into “Nothing” (Mrs C’s favourite number in the show) and she made it a real victory song. Endearing, quirky; and when she is called back in line at the end after Zach makes a mistake, everyone gasps. Of course, it falls to Diana to sing “What I Did For Love”, which is NOT about Zach and Cassie’s relationship as Richard Attenborough’s travesty of a film would have you believe, but is the simple answer to “what do you do when you can no longer dance”. She sings it beautifully – and the searing chorus that builds up around her is just magical. A brilliant performance.

Andy ReesBut the whole cast turn in wonderful performances. For example, I loved Vicki Lee Taylor’s Maggie – a voice of crystal clarity, and who invests Maggie’s role in At The Ballet with such empathy and understanding – outstandingly good. Adam Salter’s Mike is called on to do the acrobatic “I Can Do That” early on, and it’s a wonderfully funny and credible performance. You really do believe he didn’t like his mates calling him Twinkletoes. Andy Rees plays Greg with terrific comic timing – it’s a gift of a role, of course, but all the stuff about being (if I may be so direct, gentle reader) “hard” on the bus was really superbly done. I very much liked Harry Francis as Mark. That was the role I always associated myself with, when I were a lad. He brought all the necessary youth and embarrassing earnestness in his wish to do Harry Francisreally well in his first major job. He’s also an amazing dancer. There’s a sequence in “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen…” where he leads an arrow-shaped phalanx of dancers darting left and right across the stage, in true show-off Michael Bennett style, and he does it brilliantly. And James T Lane’s Richie is a little powerhouse of energy and humour, and his (again turn away if you’re likely to be offended) “Shit Richie” chorus was fantastic. I could be here all day talking about every member of the cast – and frankly they would all deserve it.

James T LaneSo I am thrilled to see A Chorus Line back on the London stage after 34 years, and in a production that is a credit to that amazing original creative team, nearly all of whom have shuffled off to that great audition in the sky. I can’t recommend it strongly enough, and I’m sure that won’t be the last time I go to see it!

PS On the way out of the theatre, there was a cameraman and a sound boom man who said they were making a documentary for NBC about the late Marvin Hamlisch. Basically, they were asking for people to sing a snatch of a Hamlisch song for their programme. So guess who got to do a bit of their “Dance Ten Looks Three” routine? I might be on the telly!