Jason Robert Brown’s Parade [Southwark Playhouse]

A musical with a book by Alfred Uhry, music & lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, originally co-conceived and directed on Broadway by Hal Prince

Young Soldier & Frankie Epps – Samuel J. Weir
Old Soldier & Judge Roan – Philip Rham
Lucille Frank – Laura Pitt-Pulford
Leo Frank – Alastair Brookshaw
Governor Slato / Britt Craig / Mr Peavy – David Haydn
Lila / Mary Phagan – Jessica Bastick-Vines
Officer Starnes / Tom Watson – Simon Bailey
Minnie McKnight / Angela – Abiona Omonua
Officer Ivey / Luther Rosser – Michael Cotton
Newt Lee / Jim Conley / Riley – Terry Doe
Mrs Phagan / Sally Slaton – Samantha Seager
Hugh Dorsey – Mark Inscoe
Iola Sover – Victoria Serra
Monteen – Natalie Green
Essie – Kelly Agbowu

The Band: Michael Bradley (piano & musical director), Jessie May Smart (violin), Sally Russell (cello), Chris Hatton (reeds), Alex Joyce (horn), Doug Grannell (double bass), Gareth Dylan Smith (percussion)

Thom Southerland – Director
Tim Jackson – Choreographer
John Risebero – Set & Costume Designer
Howard Hudson – Lighting Designer
Theo Holloway – Sound Designer
Iain Vince-Gatt – Musical Supervisor
Victoria Serra – Dance Captain

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 20 August, 2011
Venue: Southwark Playhouse, London SE1

Staged in New York in 1998 by its co-conceiver, director Hal Prince, Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, rather like Prince’s original New York production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, was given a full-blown, almost epic staging with elaborate sets, props and special effects. For Parade, as for Sweeney Todd, it didn’t work and ran for just over 120 performances. This may also have been because the subject matter, like that of Sweeney Todd, was too serious for musical treatment. Whereas the Sondheim show (dubbed “a musical thriller”) is about a fictional serial killer who has his dead bodies turned into meat pies, Parade deals with the real-life trial of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory=owner accused of the rape and murder of a teenage girl in Atlanta, Georgia in 1913 and covers a shameful period in American history that ignored or even encouraged public bigotry, police corruption, anti-semitic discrimination and media sensationalism and exploitation.

However, Parade won many awards including the Tony for Best Book and Best Score and enjoyed a national tour. It has had several productions since then, professional and amateur, The London staging at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007 was a revelation. Parade was a success. For some reason the Donmar, like the National Theatre, has a magic touch with musicals, including several of Sondheim’s.

Mentioning Brown and Sondheim together is apt. While watching Parade I was reminded in some of the music of Sondheim’s work. Harold Prince had originally asked Sondheim to write the music, but he turned it down. The music and lyrics by Brown are staggeringly good, a mature piece of work and very American. The score is influenced by Gospel music, the Blues, popular rock, folk music, sentimental hymn tunes, brash Southern dance music, and black work-songs and ballads. The book by Alfred Uhry (he won the Pulitzer Prize for Driving Miss Daisy) is powerfully emotive in its presentation of the innocence of Leo Frank against the almost-impenetrable forces of law and order and public feeling.

Leo was accused of the killing of teenager Mary Phagen without any evidence, just hearsay, coupled with the fabrication of statements by the girl’s female friends. Although Frank was the last person to see the girl alive, he was found guilty merely for being an outsider from the north (Brooklyn) and for being Jewish. He was treated as the population would have treated any negro under suspicion. Leo was jailed and sent to Death Row until his wife Lucille persuaded the State governor to re-open the case. Leo’s sentence was commuted to life – but there were others who believed he was guilty and determined to seek ‘justice’, however misguided.

Parade falls into two halves, with the first part acting out all the lies that were paraded before the court. The trial forms the finale to Act One. Act Two reveals the truth about what happened and the possibility of putting right the accusations against an innocent man but by then it appears to be too late. A magnificent cast does full justice to the piece. Alastair Brookshaw makes Leo, the quiet, fair-minded but perhaps creepy little man, into a sympathetic character, an innocent whose life is thrown into disarray by the incredible accusations aimed at him. Laura Pitt-Pulford is mightily impressive as Leo’s wife Lucille, who has a brilliant, extended number (‘You don’t know this man’) in which she offers an apologia for her innocent husband. The rest of the cast of fifteen play several of the thirty roles in a very ambitious production in which scenes move quickly.

This is due to Thom Southerland’s expert production. The director is well-used to handling large casts in musicals. With choreographer Tim Jackson he has staged an impressive version of an American musical that deserves classic status. The excellent band of seven musicians produces a really big sound, and my only cavil is that the acoustic in The Vault space is at times unkind to the voices. Otherwise this Parade is certainly one worth joining!

  • Performances until 17 September 2011
  • Monday to Friday 7.30 p.m., matinee Saturday at 3
  • Tickets: 020 7407 0234

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