Scottsboro Boys and Detroit Dreamgirls

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

There are some subjects that just feel right for musicals — a singing family in the Alps, for example, or a backstage look at dancer's audition. And then there are subjects that don't feel so right for musicals — like lynch mobs or electric chairs. Los Angeles saw one such musical last year: Jason Robert Brown's Parade, a dark show about anti-Semitism in the south during the early 20th century.

This show was on my mind this past weekend as I saw a new, serious musical, The Scottsboro Boys (especially since the composer of Parade was at the same performance, just a few seats away). Anyway, The Scottsboro Boys is the final collaboration between John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, the song-writing team that created a good share of musicals out of darker material: a wife who murders her husband and becomes infamous (Chicago) and decadent nightclubbers as the Nazi's march to power (Cabaret).

The real Scottsboro Boys were a group of nine men, all under the age of 20, accused of rape in 1931. They were kept on death row in Scottsboro, Alabama for years even after one of their white accusers admitted the charges were false, and their trials gained national attention.

Kander and Ebb's musical, receiving a small world-premiere production Off-Broadway, frames the story of The Scottsboro Boys as a minstrel show. Like the vaudeville and cabaret frameworks in Chicago and Cabaret, this structural conceit works in Scottsboro Boys. The story is efficiently told and the form evokes the period in which the musical takes place. The show has a great cast, John Cullem plays a handful of white characters, and Brandon Victor Dixon (who was the title character in Ray Charles Live! at the Pasadena Playhouse two years ago) is moving as Haywood Patterson, the only one of The Scottsboro Boys who never made it out of prison. Coleman Domingo of Passing Strange also is a joy to watch playing an assortment of redneck crackers who call to mind the late Slim Pickens.

The big question is: can The Scottsboro Boys become a mainstream success? It's a tougher sell than Curtains, the Kander and Ebb project that premiered at the Ahmanson a few years back, but I think the show has a future. Maybe not immediately — Chicago only became a bona-fide classic years later when it was revived — but chances are you'll be seeing this provocative, irreverent show someday down the road.

Closer to home is a show with a subject that's a perfect fit for musical theater: Dreamgirls. The big, bright production playing downtown at the Ahmanson through April 4 premiered at Harlem's Apollo Theater last fall (where I saw it) and it's a pleasant surprise. I wasn't such a fan of the 2006 Paramount film — it was too serious and made the thinly-veiled story of Motown records feel like Greek tragedy. This production, directed by Robert Longbottom, gives the story of Effie White (a strong Moya Angela) and the Dreamgirls the feel of a real American opera: the emotions are big, the cast energetic, the minimal dialogue in between music numbers is forgettable and everything important in the show can only be expressed in song.

As drama, Dreamgirls follows the standard celebrity biography formula to the hilt. When the show premiered in 1981, the fact that Motown and rock music was being heard on Broadway may have seemed novel. Today, after countless musical bio-pics about stars (Ray, Walk The Line, etc.) most audiences could write the plot of a new rags-to-riches show on a cocktail napkin before the show even starts.

What separates Dreamgirls from those films (and countless other “making it” in showbiz musicals) is Henry Krieger's songs. Not only are they steeped in the back beat sounds of Motown and R&B, but also most of them are also tiny arias, that have more dramatic arc then some full-length musicals.

Dreamgirls, like opera, can be enjoyed on videos or recordings; but this production proves it's a show that really only comes alive on stage.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Composite banner image: Dreamgirls by Joan Marcus and Scottsboro Boys by Carol Rosegg