I don’t necessarily know what I want in a theatrical experience, I only know if it works. But like a good romance, those precious hours in the dark are magical. And usually it’s down to an inexplicable combination of ingredients, acting and reacting to stimuli, to create a unique and memorable cocktail.Such is the power of The Royal Opera House’s production of L’elisir d’amore and the acclaimed Young Vic transfer to the Garrick Theatre, The Scottsboro Boys.
So what’s the magic ingredient?Well, in the case of Gaetano Donizetti’s infamous potion, not much.
In fact, Donizetti’s leading man in The Elixir of Love has nothing but some cheap red plonk to fuel his passion, sold to him by the con artist, Doctor Dulcamara, played with perfect cheek by Bryn Terfel. As this is a comic opera, however, melodramma giocoso, Nemorino’s bottle-fuelled optimism and tipsy, tenor charms win over the fickle Adina (sung sweetly by Lucy Crowe), suggesting there’s much to be said for an innocent placebo for a hero lacking confidence.Be that as it may, in this particular case, the Royal Opera House audience was so in love with Vittorio Grigolo’s beguiling and heart-struck Nemorino... so completely under Donizetti’s spell... so happily convinced by Laurent Pelly’s direction... that by the time Nemorino sings Una furtiva lagrima there would have been a riot if Adina hadn’t succumbed to his irresistible advances. Indeed the outpouring of breath which followed the fading last notes of Grigolo’s famous solo was not just the enthusiastic shouts of bravo, the vigorous clapping and cheering, but a collective sigh of emotional and musical satisfaction as powerful as anything I’ve experienced in the theatre.
I grew up hearing my father sing Una furtiva lagrima - at any time of the day or night his humming of this delectable melody wafted up the corridor in my direction, making me feel all was right with the world. I declare my bias. Yet the theatrical tension, deeply infused affection, vocal control and playful stretch of the phrase which characterises the perfectly poised voice of Vittorio Grigolo as he explores every nuance of this exquisite aria is nothing less than profound. I feel the electricity still. It was cathartic, stimulating, moving and deeply enriching. And if I could get another ticket - to be there as Grigolo recreates this magical moment - I would.Of course around this moment, around many scenes and sequences which worked in this excellent production, are ingredients of musicality, vocality, setting, design, direction, interpretation, acting, chorus, costume, lighting and imagination... too many and complex to list like a recipe. But in that one aria, as you close your eyes and are transported to a place unutterably beautiful, there is only Donizetti’s uplifting alignment of notes - and no matter how many times since 1832 tenor and orchestra have breathed life into those notes, the acoustic purity and blend of instruments I heard last Thursday night in Covent Garden under the baton of another Italian talent, Daniele Rustioni, was as remarkable and unique an elixir of love as I can imagine.
Vittorio Grigolo, ti amo. Sigh. Bravo. Sigh.
The potion which is The Scottsboro Boys is quite different.
It starts with light-hearted humour, a skip, a smirk, a wink and a giggle. The direction and choreography is so polished and magnetic, I wondered if it was Susan Stroman even before I got my hands on a programme. (It is!) And I was enjoying the energy and movement, the vaudevillian escapism, the ‘minstrel show’ innocence and silly gags (done in reverse with black actor/dancers playing white characters), that I was unprepared for the challenge which followed.The Scottsboro Boys is based on the true and tragic story of nine black youths who were falsely accused of rape in Alabama in 1931, convicted and kept on death-row for year after year, decade after decade, denied justice and liberty even though one of the alleged victims confessed to the lie and there was no evidence to substantiate the charge. Such were the discriminatory laws and entrenched bigotry of the time, that it was easier for southern Americans to believe the ‘white’ lie, to victimize and destroy the lives of nine innocent young men, than it was for society to face the glaringly obvious truth or challenge an acutely racist and unjust ‘justice’ system.
As this musical unfolds, in the comic style and figurative turn of a traditional minstrel show, it was for me the acting, dancing and staging ingredients that were the most memorable. I particularly admired the cast’s manipulation of the nine chairs – originally set in a semicircle as was common for the genre – reconfiguring them in clever ways to create trains, court-room scenes, holding cells and every necessary emotional and dramatic setting. The cast were excellent, performers of great breadth, and it didn’t escape my attention that a vehicle such as this for their talent was probably a long time coming.(Ok, there was a bias toward men but I think we can put that aside for the moment; for it’s not as if it’s any different in lots of plays, going back to Shakespeare!)
I found the songs enjoyable but this score, for me, does not have the gravitas or melodic impact of Kander and Ebb’s better known Cabaret and Chicago scores. Nevertheless it works, it supports the characters on their journey, and it serves a strong book and powerfully clever choreography and staging which skips the audience into a frenzy of folly until we find ourselves staring in the face of such immense legal lunacy that there is no escape from its unaccountable cruelty.Kander and Ebb, Susan Stroman and David Thompson (the writer) don’t set this moral tale as per Brecht or Ibsen, as a serious lesson which must be heeded. Rather, they charm and beguile you, entertain and flirt, with routines and physically engaging manoeuvres of set, time and place, so that, even as these happy young fellows squander in prison, you like them so very much – are endeared by their talent and versatility - you can’t possibly imagine anything but a happy ending: a musical minstrel ending.
So when the awful reality hits you – their appeals fail, these miserable boys rot behind bars as media interest wanes, and the rest of America goes back to doing whatever it has to do to forget how bad it is down there in the south – you are left with a feeling in your stomach as heavy as the elixir of love in Donizetti’s opera made you light. The music stops. The dancing is over. No jokes, no tale can be spun around a bleak and frightening ending. The mood, the soul of America is black - and the dark, innocent faces of the nine youths stand as a brutal reminder of how arbitrary life’s gifts and chances are for those unlucky enough to be born into a persecuted minority or class.And the most frightening thing about the silent curtain call... the failure of fun in ‘the minstrel show’, guilty of prolonging stereotypes and never as pure as first believed... was that it was 2013 before all the Scottsboro Boys were officially pardoned. And people continue to rot in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
Were these theatrical ingredients magical? If you mean that a state, a phenomenon, can change from A to B without logical explanation, then yes. If you mean did the drama – the comedy and then the tragedy – take me where it was intended, thrill then break my heart, then yes again. Una furtiva lagrima...I agree with the Evening Standard who awarded The Scottsboro Boys the 2014 ‘Ned Sherrin Award for Best Musical’. Ingredients which push the boundaries on musical theatre as an art form are just the potion the West End needs.