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Truth and artifice propel history and 'The Scottsboro Boys' musical at A.C.T.

Haywood Patterson (Clifton Duncan) in The Scottsboro Boys at American Conservatory Theater.

THEATER The set (by Beowulf Boritt) is almost unassuming in its simplicity: just a trio of receding frames arching over the stage, each progressively more askew, and beneath them a jumble of aluminum chairs piled to one side. Still, such simplicity also hints at, and soon delivers, rich complexity.

The chairs become many things over the course of the evening but first of all a bus stop, where an African American woman (C. Kelly Wright) in 1950s dress waits and remembers. This mute opening scene then gives way to a reverie and nightmare — a memory and history that take the form of a highly fraught "entertainment" — as a man in a white suit and a black string bow tie (Hal Linden), invariably recalling the Old South if only via the emblem of a certain fast-food chicken franchise, comes onto the stage and pronounces the start of the show.

That would be a minstrel show, a notorious artifact of 19th and 20th century American popular culture, which returns with subversive vengeance in The Scottsboro Boys — the iridescent 2010 Broadway musical by the famed song-making team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, in collaboration with equally-no-slouch associates David Thompson (book) and Susan Stroman (director and choreographer). Making an impressive Bay Area debut at American Conservatory Theater, The Scottsboro Boys revisits the trials and the international cause célèbre sparked by the false accusation of rape leveled by two white women at nine freight-train–hopping African American youths (all teenagers ranging in age from 13 to 19) in Depression-era Alabama.

If this seems a heavy subject for a musical, that hardly prevents The Scottsboro Boys from being exquisitely well wrought and enthralling, thanks to an excellent score (channeled wonderfully by Eric Ebbenga's pit orchestra), Stroman's devilishly potent staging and choreography, and a strikingly multifaceted, charismatic cast that includes a memorable Clifton Duncan as Haywood Patterson, upon whose memoir, Scottsboro Boy, the narrative partly draws (David Bazemore, Cornelius Bethea, Nile Bullock, Christopher James Culberson, Eric Jackson, Jared Joseph, James T. Lane, JC Montgomery, Clifton Oliver, and Clinton Roane make up the rest of the outstanding ensemble).

At the same time, it's precisely the mesh-clash of form and content —recalling similar canny deployments of popular theatrical forms Kander and Ebb's Cabaret and Chicago — that makes Scottsboro a vigorous, if sometimes simplified excavation of the case, as well as this country's ongoing convolutions over race, sex, ethnicity, and class. A productive tension arises between the show's exquisite spectacle and the often uncomfortable, even macabre content of the storyline. In just one example, a winning tap number erupts in the young men's shared jail cell, inspired by the terrifying proximity of the electric chair. So charged a number generates as much thought as emotion, as the audience shifts uneasily in a place where popular entertainment mingles pleasure and complicity, truth and artifice.

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