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Great ‘Scot’! A classic


John Kander and Fred Ebb have given American musical theater a pair of un disputable, stone- cold classics, "Cabaret" and "Chicago." Now they've added a third one to the list: "The Scottsboro Boys," which opened last night on Broadway.

Completed by Kander after Ebb's death in 2004, it's an archetype of the pair's MO: a boldly stylized, defiantly razzle-dazzle look at true events that underscore the bankruptcy of institutions and the nasty things people do to each other.

And it's staged as a minstrel show. Great.

The songwriters, author David Thompson and director/choreographer Susan Stroman use that long-scorned, loaded genre to tell the story of the nine black men -- the "boys" of the title -- who were falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931.

John Cullum, Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon play the stock characters of 19th-century minstrelsy: the Interlocutor (the narrator), Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, respectively. The last two pinch-hit in various white authority roles, including the sheriffs, the attorney general and a Jewish lawyer who comes down from New York to help out the prisoners.

The story has a resounding emotional charge, but we also clearly see the cruel, almost cartoonish absurdity of it all.

Here we have a relentlessly Kafka-esque justice system in which a drunken attorney easily wins a conviction. Later, one of the women recants -- and still the verdict stands. Years pass, and the boys turn into men in jail. Perhaps inspired by their moral center, the stoic Haywood Patterson (Joshua Henry), they remain unbowed.

As grim as its subject is, the show is vibrantly alive. For one, the score is packed with great tunes that instantly stick in your head, from a recurring cakewalk vamp to the rolling "Commencing in Chattanooga," which simulates a train ride's rhythm. Kander and Ebb have also come up with an instant standard with Haywood's powerful ballad "Go Back Home." You'll hear it in cabaret rooms soon.

But you can't separate the songs from Stroman's staging, a model of visually striking economy. She needs only chairs, tambourines and a few other props to evoke a variety of locales and situations, including a chain gang and an electric-chair execution.

On the surface, "The Scottsboro Boys" is a hard sell in a Times Square dominated by escapist fluff. The show was slightly tweaked after its off-Broadway run in the spring -- to give the characters more back story and motivation -- but it hasn't been compromised, and remains grimly thought-provoking.

Yet this is also a thrillingly inventive and entertaining night at the theater. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll be moved. What could be more Broadway than that?

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