Saturday, November 02, 2013

Let's Hear It For The Boys!

Two American theatrical imports, two different styles of telling true stories through a musical form.
Constant Reader, no one was more surprised than me to find myself sitting in the Prince Edward last Saturday about to watch JERSEY BOYS, a production I thought I would never see.
Jukebox musicals don't do it for me and The Four Seasons never made any impression on me so I was happy to avoid it.  I was surprised when I read in the programme that the production opened FIVE years ago - I thought it had been running for about two!
What surprised me too was the sinewy and punchy script that placed us firmly in New Jersey and the blue-collar and mob-friendly background that the group sprang from.  Former Woody Allen co-writer Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's script may skimp on real characterisation but they have hit on the idea of having the four members of the group each take a turn narrating the plot which gives each of them a definite identity.  It's also funny to think that of all the pop groups who have cultivated a bad-boy image, that it was the squeaky clean Four Seasons who actually had real criminal backgrounds.  I also learnt something new in that a young Joe Pesci used to be a gopher for the band!
The production zooms through the group's genesis and fitting the final jigsaw-piece that was Bob Gaudio and his facilty for penning a memorable pop song.  What was a bit irksome about the show was the relegating of Gaudio's song-writing partner Bob Crewe to a walk-on as the band's camp record producer.  Another major contribution to the show's success however is that you are never too far away from a song and the production is so sure of itself that it sometimes gives you just a verse and chorus of a song so it can plough on.
Des McAnuff's polished and slick production gives us success and failure, compromise and triumph, life and death.  Of course we get a handy telescoping of time.  According to the show, Tony DeVito's massive gambling and personal debts to the mob result in a forced relocation to Las Vegas and having to quit the band which also motivates Nick Massi to quit, whereas in real life Massi left the band five years before DeVito!  The show also takes in the death of Valli's daughter which in reality happened in 1980 and their induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame which happened in 1990 - all with no signs of aging among the cast at all.
A simple set of an elevated metal walkway and dodgy Lichtenstein-esque projections leaves the stage clear for the performers to hurtle around and although it would be asking too much for good acting too, there were lively and engaging performances from Jon Boydon as Tony DeVito, Edd Post as Bob Gaudio and - yes I really am writing this - ex-S Club 7 member Jon Lee as Frankie Valli.
Although I have never bought any of their records, the songs were immediately familiar - SHERRY, WALK LIKE A MAN, BIG GIRLS DON'T CRY, RAG DOLL, LET'S HANG ON, CAN'T TAKE MY EYES OFF YOU, BEGGIN',  DECEMBER 1963 (OH WHAT A NIGHT) and WHO LOVES YOU are all socked over the footlights to haunt you out onto the street and all the way home.  I guess the show did it's trick as I now have a compilation thanks to Owen!  Another major-plus for the show was there was no dreaded post-curtain-call megamix.  This probably annoyed the punters around me who were eager to clap along off-the-beat to anything played onstage but not me.
My only real titty-lip about JERSEY BOYS was the exclusion of their signing to Motown in the early '70s.  Although they had no hits while briefly on the label, it was where they recorded THE NIGHT, later a huge UK hit for them when reissued three years later in 1975.  But I must say thank you to Owen's brother and sister-in-law for wanting to see the show on their visit to London as I would otherwise not have seen this example of how a jukebox musical can be made enjoyable.
After this it was time to journey south - over the river to the Young Vic and from Jersey to Alabama with John Kander and the late Fred Ebb's THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS.
The show opened off-Broadway in 2010 for a two month limited run and received very good reviews.  Later that year it opened on Broadway in a bigger theatre but couldn't find an audience and closed, again after only two months.  The Tony Award committee recognised it with a staggering 12 nominations but it didn't win any of them, losing out mostly to THE BOOK OF MORMON juggernaut. 
Now director/choreographer Susan Stroman and her creative team have revived the production at the Young Vic and have given us an involving, inventive show that shocks as it delights.  In their two greatest scores Kander & Ebb have used showbiz forms to comment on uncomfortable events: The Kit-Kat Klub illustrates the growing power of the Nazis in CABARET while within CHICAGO's Vaudeville format lies a caustic look at the corrupt US justice system and tawdry celebrity.  THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS also deals with the US justice system but also how, to quote Richard Pryor (and David Thompson's book), when black Americans look for justice that's all they find, "just us". 
In 1931 nine black teenagers, travelling through Alabama to Memphis, were falsely accused of raping two white girls Victoria Price & Ruby Bates and sentenced to death.  For the next six years, they saw their sentences commuted only to be re-tried and found guilty again - despite one of the women admitting in court that she lied.  Their defence was funded by the American Communist Party and a successful New York lawyer defended them for free.  But he too was confronted by the racism that the boys were subjected to - the prosecution asked the re-trial jury "Is justice in the case going to be bought and sold in Alabama with Jew money from New York?"  In 1937, the four youngest defendants were allowed their freedom and bizarrely they were booked onto a vaudeville tour.  The remaining five either escaped or were paroled - the last being Andy Wright, paroled in 1950 after 19 years of wrongful imprisonment.

In an inspired artistic choice, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS is told through the form of a minstrel show.  The minstrel form - white performers blacked-up - is subverted here by black performers playing white characters while still under the guidance of a white Interlocutor and refracts the racism of the real story through the accepted racism of the minstrel form.
On a bare stage apart from a pile of chairs, a white Interlocutor introduces his company of eleven black performers.  One of them asks if this time they can present the story as it happened while the Interlocutor assigns the roles of white authority to the company's two resident clowns Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones.  All the while a woman, unseen by them all, shadows the action, watching as it unfolds.  She provides the coda to the show in a scene that I had guessed might be coming up after her first appearance at the top of the evening but according to the programme notes it does have a bearing with the Scotsboro case.
David Thompson's fine book has the minstrel performers slowly find their own voice through the retelling of the Scotsboro case - when the genial but threatening Interlocutor insists on hearing a good ol' soothing negro song the company duly deliver but slowly the lyrics change to take in lynchings and the Klan.  By the time of the finale, with his performers performing in blackface, the Interlocutor demands they join him in a traditional cakewalk but they refuse.
Kander & Ebb's score vibrates with various styles such as cakewalks, tap dances, point numbers and plaintive ballads, some of which homage their back catalogue e.g. a big comedy production number when Ruby Bates, the penitent white girl, changes her story in the courtroom echoes "When Velma Takes The Stand" from CHICAGO but the score is solid and each song adds depth to the story while propelling it forward.
Susan Stroman's excellent cast includes six American performers, five of whom have appeared in the show before.  Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon reprise their Tony-nominated roles of Messrs. Bones and Tambo, Christian Dante White and James T. Lane ('Ritchie' in the recent revival of A CHORUS LINE) are riotous when playing Victoria Price and Ruby Bates and the lead role of Haywood Paterson, who refused to lie even if it meant the possibility of early release, is powerfully played by Kyle Scatliffe.
Julian Glover was an amiable but threatening Interlocutor, Dawn Hope had little to do as The Woman but did it with grace and Adebayo Bolaji ('Harpo' in the Menier COLOR PURPLE) was good as the combative Clarence Norris.
Beowulf Boritt's set design and Toni-Leslie James' costume designs are major contributors to the show's success as is Ken Billington's lighting design.  Stroman's choreography is inventive and insightful and she directs the show with clarity and power. 
In 2010 Susan Stroman co-directed and Beowulf Boritt designed the almighty dog-show that was PARADISE FOUND at the Menier but at the Young Vic with a remarkable cast and the genius team of John Kander and Freb Ebb they have triumphed in one of the shows of the year.
Do the clicky on the picture below to book tickets:

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