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Too much cynicism mars ‘Scottsboro Boys’

If the intent of “The Scottsboro Boys” was to make the audience squirm, then mission accomplished. Mixing a massive transgression of justice with an entertainment form long considered racist will do that. But as an illuminating, entertaining piece of theater, ­ the final collaboration between John Kander and Fred Ebb ­ falls short.

The musical recently played off-Broadway and is making a two-month run at the Guthrie Theater before heading to Broadway in the fall. It retains most of the New York cast and features the same direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, whose  long list of credits includes “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein” and “Big.”

The titular characters are nine black youth who are accused of raping two white women in Depression-era Alabama. History has shown the accusations to be a lie, but the nine are tried over and over again through the decade, with guilty verdicts returned each time. Even when the majority of them are finally paroled, they cannot escape the accusations or all of the lost years of their lives.

The show ­ featuring a book by David Thompson ­ is told as a show-within-a-show by a minstrel troupe, with the actors taking on the roles of not just the accused men, but also the white judges, attorneys and even their accusers.

While this approach certainly makes you want to squirm, it also reduces all of the action to the status of a cynical side show. Thompson’s book has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, which keeps us at arm’s length from the central characters.  The songs, which evoke the traditional music of the era, are covered in that same cynical, jaundiced view of the world.

If you know “Chicago,” that description probably sounds familiar. The songwriting duo travel a lot of the same territory — right down to “Razzle Dazzle”-like courtroom scenes — but with considerable less effect here, in part because the music and lyrics lean too heavily on tricks the two used before, but mainly because the situation is different; ­ the people in the dock this time are completely innocent and deserve justice.

Into this troubled work steps an exemplary cast who carry the evening even when the score and script work to undermine them. As de facto leader — and a man whose claims of innocence kept him in jail until his death — ­ Haywood Patterson, Joshua Henry gives a rock-solid performance that provides a much needed taste of humanity.

“The Scottsboro Boys” runs through Sept. 25 on the Guthrie Theater¹s McGuire Proscenium Stage, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis. Tickets are $29 to $65. For information and tickets, call 612-377-2224 or go here.

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