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This production of Parade is gripping, essential theatre. It’s gripping thanks to the taut, tributary directing of Thom Southerland, masterful performances from its’ talented cast, and the way in which both components combine to bring out the tension, irony, beauty and inner strength of Alfred Uhry’s writing and Jason Robert Brown’s truthful (oft achingly so) music and lyrics. It’s not enough to say that Uhry’s writing comes alive through this production, as to see it is to witness life breathed into Arlen’s story, the sad but true one of an innocent man named Leo Frank, wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of his thirteen year old employee, Mary Phagan.
On the surface, Brooklyn bred Leo Frank seemed an ordinary man – hard-working and conscientious. But he was uncomfortably out of place in his adopted home of Atlanta, Georgia, circa 1913, where he went to take a ‘good’ job in his uncle’s pencil factory, then, met and, married a local woman, Lucille. Regardless, Frank was ever and always, the outsider…Especially when the locals held their annual Confederate Memorial Day celebrations, which included a popular, patriotic parade. Frank’s question, ‘How could you celebrate losing a war?’ forms a connecting thread throughout this riveting production.
When a thirteen year old factory girl is raped and murdered, Frank and one of his black workers are questioned. In a decision based solely on political gain, those responsible for charging a suspect decide it would be more advantageous at that point in time to charge a white man rather than a black one with the crime, so Frank is condemned out of hand, as his counterpart might have likewise, been. This musical, which shares much with the contemporary operas it has no doubt influenced, depicts the lead up to Frank’s arrest, trumped up conviction and two year imprisonment while he awaits execution, culminating in the brutal side-stepping of the commuting of his sentence from death to life in prison following his wife’s successful plea to the governor to reopen the case, when a mob of hate fueled vigilantes more interested in flexing collective muscle than respecting justice abduct and hang him. Leo Frank’s murder was and is a stain on history of the US Justice System, as was the viciously warped media and political circus surrounding the 1927 arrest, conviction and execution (based on circumstantial evidence) of Italian Immigrants Saco and Vanzetti, and the 1935 ‘trial’ and execution of Bruno Haupmann, alleged ‘kidnapper’ of the Lindberg baby, based on same, again, heightened by the suspect’s ‘otherness’ and all of the aforementioned variables. And the beat goes on…
Written in 1998, Parade seems more topical than ever these days, with its’ corrupt media and political landscape in which double standards not only apply, but bind, and sometimes, break, those lacking the power to fight them. The group examples of real life mob violence and lawlessness we’ve witnessed recently across England deems Parade, with its’ uncompromising, intelligent views of same, not only compulsive, but mandatory viewing. Those who merely dub it depressing, wake up! If what’s outside our doors doesn’t depress, nothing else will. Parade aptly serves as a potent reminder that just as we have disease in society, we also have the cure – namely, awareness…The first step towards a preventative.
Men can be dualistic beasts, beast being the operative word. However, Leo Frank was a regular man, who hid in his work, inadvertently neglecting his young wife Lucille in the process. Ironically, Uhry’s desire to write about Frank stemmed from something hidden, namely, the story of Frank himself, which was continually hushed up by familial adults while he was growing up amid the challenges and variables unique to being both Jewish and Southern-born. Uhry could lay claim to being ‘home,’ however out of place he may have felt at times, but it was only after he relocated to NYC after his marriage in 1959 that his writing became his official means of self-expression.
Laws exist to protect those who abide by them from the lawless. However, as Uhry observed in his book, it can sometimes be difficult to tell when or how, the lines between reality and self-righteous indignation and justification are blurred to the point of being expressed through raging, mob mentality.
The fact that the cast in this deeply thought out production interact as if they are really, townspeople, who’ve deluded themselves into thinking that their cruelty and racism may actually, be justifiable, sends a chill through the ‘vault’, with its bared brick walls and high, arched ceiling. The very sparseness of the space enhances the show’s growing sense of desolation and desperation while the sad story unfolds and the Franks’ hopes become our own. So much so, that once those hopes are dashed, we feel a sense of sorrow and if we’re human enough, shame, tinged with fearful wonderment in the face of the potential ferocity of human nature.
This is not an achievement to be taken lightly! In fact, I’ve never seen a musical production wield more power than this one. As well as being absorbing from start to finish, it’s a learning experience, and the lessons it teaches us are ones we need never forget. Those who think WWII era pensioners are silly, think again. There are many reasons why we mustn’t forget society’s collective falls from grace. The fact that this production manages to get that across as powerfully as it does is truly, awe-inspiring!
Photo by Annabel Vere
Among a sterling cast, in which each major player is seen to have inner intentions and desires which are, not necessarily the ones they appear to wear on their sleeves, there are still shining stars. Most notably among them are the hugely commendable actors playing the Leo and Lucille Frank – Alastair Brookshaw and Laura Pitt-Pulford. If I were to throw every glowing adjective known to man at these actors, my praise of them would still fall short. Suffice it to say that their amazingly emotive and evocative singing and acting carry their audience along like so much driftwood on a heaving sea. It’s my sincere hope that both of these hugely talented actors retain their roles in the West End transfer that’s surely, this fine production’s destiny. Their passionate duet, ‘All the Wasted Time’ was truly heart-wrenching. Opera and its’ classically trained singers can only aspire to be as persuasive and compelling as this pair.
Other actors who seem to live their roles include versatile Mark Inscoe as power-hungry, by any means necessary, lawyer, Hugh Dorsey, and Samantha Seager in her dual roles as the murdered girl’s mother, Mrs. Phagan and socialist socialite Sally Slaton. Last, but certainly not least on my list of Olivier contenders is, in a class of his own, make that a league, Terry Doe as Newt Lee, the workman accused alongside of Frank, escaped unscrupulous convict, Jim Conley and Riley, a wily townsman. In all three roles, Doe’s acting and singing are equally superlative, and his performances not only greatly enhance the show, but also, entertain as well. Samuel J. Weir also courts stardom in his roles a Young Soldier and the murdered girl’s admirer, Frankie Epps.
But, there is NO performer who disappoints in the least in this production, as each not only knows his/her character very well, but offers their interpretations in excellent voice, not to mention well done ensemble dancing. Thanks to Tim Jackson’s choreography, seemingly combing dance with character’s motivations, the dancing itself is sometimes used as a tool to highlight rising or overflowing emotions in a way not common to the musical genre. Brown’s songs too are narrative in nature, with the contemplative love song, ‘All the Wasted Time’ alone allowing Frank and his wife Lucille a moving pause.
John Risebero’s set for this appropriately stripped back space consists of what doubles as the upper porch of a large house or courtroom, as the scene requires, with a wooden flight of stairs leading up to it, topped by the grimy, back-lit door of a 1913 office at one end, and a simplistic, sliding wooden ‘cell’ door at the other, acting as a shadow throwing jail. Both are put to good use, periodically ebbing the show’s flow to great dramatic effect, working hand in glove with Howard Hudson’s seamlessly executed Lighting Design. Risebero’s costumes are also just right for their time, whether long, tailored and ladylike or sweetly childish for women and girls, or buttoned up and business like for Leo and his (unbeknown to him) enemies, the ever polished, power hungry lawyer Hugh Dorsey and his partner in corruption, Judge Roan (well played by Phillip Rham) as well as other pivotal characters, among them Officer Starnes and Tom Watson, ably acted by Simon Bailey, who gave voice to both most memorably via his fine singing.
Nothing about this musical is without meaning, from its disturbingly true storyline, to its’ priority tightening lyrics, so it comes as no surprise that its’ dancing is likewise, purposeful. As Uhry’s obviously abhors hypocrisy, some of the dancing reflexes such paradoxes, being visually pleasing at the outset, until you realize its coy steps are really meant as a parody of good manners cloaking devilishness. Likewise, the true meaning of Brown’s often searing lyrics are sometimes belatedly acknowledged by one’s momentarily dazzled comprehension of his music, which lures one off the beat. Which, precisely and smoothly makes the show’s resonating point - that too much rosy-tinted complacency in society tends to breed contempt, thus, inadvertently, but nonetheless, invariably, enabling tragic consequences.
Brown’s imaginative use of authentic sounding ‘marching band’ strains amid his already non-traditional ‘show’ music conjures up just the right blend of stirring mental imagery linking US hypocrisy to its’ larger than life folklore. Celebration as habitual and ritual, i.e., dressed up, going through its’ hollowed out, no-where to go motions. Each song is specifically geared to enhance the atmosphere of its’ pivotal scene.
This soul-shaking production captures its’ frightening mob mentality so effectively that the day I went, the audience left the theatre in a collective hush, as if in reverence to the memory of Leo Frank, an innocent man fallen prey to the worst side of human nature – that cloaked in self righteous indignation masking intense, self-serving greed…A phenomena that’s returned to haunt us of late, on our very doorsteps.
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