Can there be more exceptional musical production on the London stage at the moment, than Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) and Alfred Uhry’s (book) 1998 Broadway flop Parade, seen here in an superb staging at the intimate Donmar Warehouse by choreographer turned director Rob Ashford (who actually appeared in the short lived Broadway production at the Lincoln Centre)?
Apparently the show has undergone many changes since its New York run, and this production is beautifully direct with a cast of only 15, as opposed to a cast of over double that on Broadway. Despite winning two Tony Awards, perhaps the Great White Way just wasn’t the place for such a serious minded, but never dull, musical. The show is inspired by the real life case of Leo Frank, a New York Jew convicted of the rape and murder of a 13 year old girl in the Deep South in 1913, and subsequently lynched. The story focuses on events around the murder, proceedings of the trial, and the relationship of Leo and his Southern wife Lucille, leaving some ambiguity over the guilt or innocence of Frank, but very persuasive in suggesting that Frank was the victim of a miscarriage of justice through the hysteria built up around the murder (and the personal character of Frank) by the press and political interests. The media hype around the case has many parallels with our own times, but despite revealing the false evidence and political machinations behind the trial, the show is very clever in not showing Frank to be certainly innocent (we never see the murder itself, but we also never hear a corroborated alibi from him) or particularly likeable. Frank (an excellent performance by Bertie Carvel) is a nervous ball of energy, a sober and almost prim figure, but I certainly found him slightly creepy at first too. His wife (also superb, Lara Pulver) is a determined and dignified woman, but her doubts and distress, as well as her love for her ‘decent’ husband are powerfully shown. Lucille never actually says that she thinks her husband is the murderer, but she was thinking at at least one point that he might be. Her distress at inadvertently sitting next to the mother of the murdered girl at the trial is also beautifully and subtly portrayed by Pulver, one of many nuanced and dramatically intelligent moments in the production.
Ashford’s production, his directorial debut, is fabulous (he also choreographs), and indeed meticulous. The use of dance is exceptionally strong and not overdone, he represents the obscene circus surrounding these most sad and human events with extraordinary vigour. The design by Christopher Oram is also top class, a raised porch like space with a gallery and a surprisingly large stage in front, all dark and distressed. Jason Robert Brown’s score is varied, with echoes of Negro spirituals, bluesy numbers, a soulful love duet, a powerful hymn to the Southland and even an energetic and brassy good old fashioned show tune. In conjunction with the superb acting we really couldn’t ask for more.
I had many emotions brought vividly to life in this show, at time I was electrified by events to such an extent that the hair on the back of neck really did stand on end (especially during the lynching), and the song between Mr and Mrs Frank was very moving indeed. The stage picture was so often exceptionally compelling, and the ending, with Mrs Frank in tears amidst the Confederate Memorial Day Parade (a motif of the case), with husband frozen in time in the gallery, particularly stunning.
Prejudice of many forms is discussed in this show (racial, religious, geographic), along with the elusive nature of truth (and lies) and the fallibility and weakness that can turn grown people into howling unthinking judges of their fellow men and women. Media manipulation of justice then made mobs surround a court building and eventually lynch a man, but the implications of the actions of some members of the modern media also result in unsavoury occurrences and trials by public opinion, if not death. I’m cant say that Frank wasn’t guilty, but we can call his lynching an outrageous crime and his conviction highly suspect.
I really would advise anyone who take an interest in the theatre, especially the intelligent musical, to book their tickets to Parade toot sweet.
P.S: A new London cast recording should be available in a few months time.