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Porchlight sets stage on fire with ‘Scottsboro Boys’ musical

The cast of "The Scottsboro Boys," the Kander and Ebb musical now in its Chicago premiere by Porchlight Music Theatre. (Photo: Kelsey Jorissen)

It would be thrilling enough to simply deliver the news that Porchlight Music Theatre is now setting the stage on fire with its Chicago premiere of “The Scottsboro Boys,” the last major collaboration by John Kander and (the late) Fred Ebb, the fabled Broadway musical team behind “Cabaret” and “Chicago.”

Highly recommended
When: Through March 12
Where: Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
Tickets: $45 – $51
Info: www.PorchlightMusicTheatre.org
Run time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission

But there is something of far greater importance to acknowledge here. For on the evidence of this show, and such recent productions as “Blues for an Alabama Sky” (now at Court Theatre), “Hobo Kings” (now in a Congo Square production), “East Texas Hot Links” (just seen at Writers Theatre), “Dreamgirls” (an earlier hit for Porchlight), and “Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys” (a play very much like this musical, memorably staged by Raven Theatre last season), the evidence is overwhelming: We are in the midst of what can only be considered a golden age of African-American theater in Chicago. (And the examples I’ve cited here are just the tip of the iceberg.)

... (from left), Larry Yando and ..... in the Porchlight Music Theatre production of the Kander and Ebb musical, "The Scottsboro Boys." (Photo: Kelsey...)

Denzel Tsopnang (from left) as Mr. Bones, Larry Yando as The Interlocutor, and Mark J.P. Hood as Mr. Tambo in the Porchlight Music Theatre production of “The Scottsboro Boys,” a Kander and Ebb musical. (Photo: Kelsey Jorissen)

In addition, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the entire cast of “The Scottsboro Boys” is brilliant, and together with the vivid direction of Samuel G. Roberson Jr., galvanic choreography by Florence Walker-Harris, fine music direction by Doug Peck, and splendid design (by Andrei Onegin, Richard Norwood and Samantha Jones), this show easily could hold its own alongside “Hamilton.”

The show (which had both Off Broadway and short-lived Broadway runs in 2010), takes a sharply sardonic Brechtian approach to the minstrel show tradition as it chronicles one of the more tragic but emblematic chapters in this country’s Jim Crow history. It traces the true story of nine African-American teenagers who were pulled off a train in Alabama in 1931, falsely accused of rape by two white women (who happened to be prostitutes), subsequently imprisoned and subjected to eight trials and appeals over many years — all against the backdrop of corrupt courtrooms, threats of lynchings and the electric chair, and political intervention from activist Northerners. The conceit is that the black actors play both black and white characters, and enact a fascinating partial reversal of the minstrel tradition in which white actors blackened their faces to portray black people in mostly demeaning ways. (The story, incidentally, perfectly dovetails with the recent confession of the white woman who made damning false claims against Emmett Till.)

Few of the “Scottsboro boys” even knew each other before they hopped on a train like many others during the early Depression era in search of work or escape. It is Haywood Patterson (James Earl Jones II, in the most impressive and vocally lush turn of his long and distinguished career), who emerges as the rebellious firebrand of the group — the man who, as a song title says, “Makes Friends With the Truth,” and refuses to plead guilty to a crime he never committed. Along the way he is taught to read and write by Roy Wright (a gently winning portrayal by Jerome Riley  Jr.), who is lucky enough to have a brother, Andy (Maurice Randle). The other boys, all excellent, are Travis Austin Wright, Steven Allen Jr., Izaiah Harris, Trequon Tate, Jos N. Banks and Cameron Goode (an ideally sweet-voiced 14-year-old).

Denzel Tsopnang and Mark J.P. Hood are sensational as the minstrel stars who sing, dance and act up a storm as they play everything from white sheriffs, to lawyers (one an alcoholic Southerner, the other a Jew from New York who is met with all the intense anti-Semitism of the era), to the two prostitutes. And as The Interlocutor — the sole white member of the cast — there is the ever-riveting Larry Yando as something of a malevolent but stylish Colonel Sanders clone outfitted in a creamy suit and stylish hat.

The bristling Kander and Ebb score (with a biting and at times poetic book by David Thompson), is a stunner, with everything from a jaunty cakewalk and mock minstrel-style numbers and fervent ballads to a powerful chain gang chant set to the rhythmic thrashing of wooden poles.

Throughout there also is a haunting maternal figure in a pink coat. The Lady (expertly played by Cynthia Clarey) remains silent, except when, in a perfect “coup de theatre,” she has her soft-spoken but determined Civil Rights era moment on a bus. It’s a stunning flashback and pitch-perfect commentary.

One final note: Porchlight recently announced that next season it will move to the Ruth Page Center for the Arts at 1016 N. Dearborn, putting its shows within easy reach of the downtown tourist crowd, and providing greater seating capacity for its expanding Chicago audience. “The Scottsboro Boys” is a perfect example of why it is bound to thrive.

James Earl Jones IIstars as Haywood Patterson in the Porchlight Music Theatre production of "The Scottsboro Boys," (Photo: Kelsey ....)

James Earl Jones II stars as Haywood Patterson in the Porchlight Music Theatre production of “The Scottsboro Boys.” (Photo: Kelsey Jorissen)