When a slinky prostitute recants the testimony that has helped send nine innocent young black men to jail, the Dixie prosecutor hardly skips a beat.
He breaks into “Financial Advice,” a smarmy ode on the power of “Jew money” to explain his star witness’s sudden change of heart. A guilty verdict affirms the wisdom of his tactical shift.
So goes “The Scottsboro Boys” the valedictory musical of John Kander and Fred Ebb (who died in 2004), the refreshingly twisted team responsible for such no silver-lining, anti-smiley-face Broadway shows as “Cabaret” and “Chicago.”
Unveiled last spring in a smashing production overseen by director-choreographer Susan Stroman, “The Scottsboro Boys,” seemed an unlikely candidate for transfer to the commercial arena. Here it is anyway, subtly but smartly retooled, in the intimate Lyceum Theatre.
It’s still smashing, and it’s still shocking.
Deploying little more than an ensemble of gifted performers and a dozen painted chairs, the musical tells the Depression-era story of those nine men falsely accused of rape in Alabama. Trial after trial brings them no relief, not even after their defense is taken over by Samuel Leibowitz, a pinko Jewish lawyer from New York.
Kander and Ebb, along with book writer David Thompson, took the enormous risk of gussying up this bleak story in the tatterdemalion of a minstrel show. With the exception of John Cullum, who serves as the Interlocutor, all the major roles are played -- and played brilliantly -- by black actors. In the key part of prisoner Haywood Patterson, cast newcomer Joshua Henry adds a fiery mix of anger and frustration.
The story is wrenching and the songs rank with Kander and Ebb’s most gorgeous; “Southern Days” -- which starts out as a riff on “My Old Kentucky Home” and, with its lynching imagery, ends up echoing Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” -- still gives me nightmares.
At the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com Rating: ****
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(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)