Theatre Raleigh has earned much of its sterling reputation through intimate stagings of musicals, particularly ones with strong messages about the human condition. Topping that list are Parade, addressing anti-Semitism in the 1913 murder trial of an Atlanta factory superintendent, and Violet, chronicling a young woman’s enlightening journey during the turbulent 1960s. With The Scottsboro Boys, Theatre Raleigh adds another entry to that exclusive list in what can only be described as a boundary-breaking rollercoaster ride that audiences will not soon forget.

The 2010 Broadway musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago), with a script by David Thompson, is based on the 1931 arrest of nine African American men, ages 13 through 20, who were taken off a train in Scottsboro, Alabama, after fights broke out with white passengers. Two white prostitutes on the train falsely accused the black men of rape, hoping to deflect attention from their own illegal activities. The ensuing outrage from the locals made quick work of the men’s trial; all but the 13-year-old were sentenced to death.

Public outcry in the North led to various stays, appeals, and, ultimately, two significant Supreme Court decisions correcting injustices to blacks on trial. Nevertheless, the nine were imprisoned for many years, endured numerous re-trials, and were continually harassed by law enforcement officials. Although all were variously set free, their lives were forever changed by the unjust treatment.

The creative team for The Scottsboro Boys didn’t want comfortable, sympathetic storytelling. Instead, they daringly framed the men’s dilemma as a 19th century minstrel show, but in reverse. Their version includes purposely disturbing musical numbers in which black men perform the high-stepping stereotypes and deliberately disorienting scenes in which they play a number of white characters. There are some scenes with more realistic songs and dialogue, but they are constantly supplanted by stage-filling production numbers that are undeniably entertaining but guilt-inducing in their irony.

Critical reaction to The Scottsboro Boys was quite mixed at its premiere, many reviews noting the difficulty of accepting the unsettling mocking in tandem with the gritty reality of what the men endured. Theatre Raleigh’s gripping staging is therefore all the more noteworthy because of its nigh-perfect melding of the two opposing elements.

Director and choreographer Gerry McIntyre‘s astute understanding of the 100-minute, intermission-less show created a tightly ticking time bomb, slyly entertaining with stellar singing and dancing while slowly building to an unexpectedly shocking climax. McIntyre’s ability to elicit moving, well-rounded characterizations from his cast, overlaid with raucous humor and outsized parodies, was an impressive balancing act with never a slip. His dazzling choreography, which included stylized movement in the dialogue scenes, went from one jaw-dropping moment to the next, with some of the most thrilling ensemble dancing seen on a local stage for some time. McIntyre and his willing cast held the audience’s feet to the fire and never let up, making for a darkly sobering presentation that was also exhilarating in its unblinking confrontation of man’s inhumanity to man.

Chris Bernier’s stark setting of three nesting, off-kilter wooden frames and a similar backwall allowed for shadows and fleeting colors from Christina Munich’s lighting design, supplying atmosphere to each scene, whether prison cell, courtroom, or train car. Such locations were quickly realized by the actors using property designer Kiernan Bastien’s wooden chairs and steamer trunks, along with a gavel here and a tambourine there. Dorothy Austin-Harrell‘s costumes were realistic for the men’s everyday clothing and prison uniforms while her minstrel show and parody characters’ costumes had circus-like colors and bold patterns. A steel prison door sliding shut and a restive mob’s murderous mumblings were just two of Eric Alexander Collins‘ appropriate sound effects.

Joanna Li‘s musical direction displayed a fine feel for the various styles used within the score, her sensitive five-piece band piped in from offstage. Opening night found the band’s sound level uncomfortably loud in the big numbers, exacerbated by the miked voices being pumped up to be heard over them. In general, the many tense scenes produced a lot of shouting, which the sound levels pushed to near-painful edginess.

All 13 cast members gave individually affecting characterizations. Heading up the list was Darius Jordan Lee‘s volatile, angry, and ultimately heart-wrenching Haywood, whose resistance to the authorities simply set him up for the most abuse. Lee’s alternately plaintive and fierce singing conveyed the character’s frustration in knowing his innocence despite the accusations. He used a palpable stage presence to riveting effect in a number of confrontations.

As homesick 13-year-old Eugene, Michael Lassiter displayed confidence and talent seemingly beyond his years. He acted with true emotion, had a good feel for comic timing, and sang accurately and endearingly. But it was his spot-on dance moves, especially in the wildly inventive (and frightening) electric chair number, that Lassiter amazed in his energetic grasp of the most intricate steps. He held his own in that number with two other notable performers who played multiple parts as the minstrel show’s co-hosts. David Robbins’ white Southern sheriff was an over-the-top caricature, funny and menacing at the same time, and his two good-old-boy lawyers were wily villains.Jason Daniel Rath‘s sheriff’s deputy was amusingly dopey, but his sympathetic Northern lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz, who defended the nine men in court, was a likeable character who had to endure anti-Semitic abuse from the Southern white lawyers.

Of the seven other accused men, two stood out because of their dual roles. Trey McCoy as spunky Charles and Melvin Gray, Jr. as shy Ozie had their moments in the ensemble, but they also played the two accusing prostitutes, Victoria and Ruby, respectively. With a few female trappings overlaying their prison garb, McCoy and Gray made indelible characters without ever overdoing the “men in a dress” routine. With subtle movements and just enough softness, they were both hilarious and affecting, each having to grapple with their false accusations in song. The other actors playing accused men, Jajuan Cofield (Andy), Sai Graham (Willie), Chris J. Helton (Clarence), Tyrone Kiaku (Olen), and Gerald M. Williams (Roy), all sang harmoniously as an ensemble and were fully committed to the complicated dance routines. Williams’ Roy was particularly engaging when teaching Haywood to write using sexual imagery to help Haywood remember the letters.

Two other characters added commentary to the proceedings. David McClutchey, in a career-best performance, played The Interlocutor, an all-knowing narrator representing the typical Southern white attitude towards African Americans at the time. Whether courtroom judge, state governor, or landed gentleman, McClutchey made it plain that on the surface these characters seemed sympathetic but underneath lurked an assumed white superiority and privilege. Aya Wallace’s silent role as The Lady first seemed there merely to help change scenes and easel cards. However, her involvement in certain numbers, her empathic observations of the men’s dilemma, and her surprise payoff at the play’s end made the character a welcome foil to The Interlocutor.

For those who are unsure about attending such an uncategorizable show, one that might seem off-putting, the answer lies in the opening night audience’s vociferous responses to the amazing cast and the show’s compelling messages, which culminated in an instantaneous roar at the last fadeout.

The Scottsboro Boys continues through Sunday, September 15. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.