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Parade

If this doesn’t make you cry, then you’re in trouble ...


Set against the ‘old red hills’ of early 20th century Georgia, Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s 1998 musical Parade tells the real life story of a dark chapter in American anti-Semitism. In 1913, 13-year-old Mary Phagan was found dead in the National Pencil Factory in Marietta. Two men were questioned about her murder – Newt Conley, the black night-watchman and Leo Frank, a New York Jew employed as Superintendent. Frank was eventually convicted of her murder, but, following a re-examination of the evidence, had his death sentence transmuted to that of life. On August 16th, 1915, the so-called ‘Knights of Mary Phagan’ broke into Frank’s cell, kidnapped him, and hanged him from a tree two miles from Marietta.

Parade tells these events against the backdrop of political and cultural struggles – Leo Frank, the Brooklyn Jew in the Confederate South as well as a battle between old and new Governors – the softer Governor Slaton, who reopened Frank’s case, against prosecutor, and later Governor, Hugh Dorsey. Using the music of the period, a mixture of ragtime, Dixie, spirituals and blues, Parade is a thrilling, spine tingling dramatisation of a horrific miscarriage of justice.

Thom Southerland’s production more than lives up to its material. In the bare brick of Southwark Playhouse Vaults, every footstep resonates and the whispers bounce off the walls. John Riseboro’s design is simple but effective – traverse staging with an exposed wooden floor flanked by platforms and a staircase which Howard Hudson’s lighting exploits. It’s rare to see such an accomplished lighting design on the Fringe, but Hudson explores every nook and cranny to create an environment which flits between the hot Georgia sun and the dank prison cells. There are a few early teething problems with the sound levels, meaning some lines are lost, but hopefully these will get ironed out.

As Leo Frank, Alastair Brookshaw (bearing more than a passing resemblance to his Broadway predecessor Brent Carver) is a bundle of ticks and neuroses. Physically smaller than most, his Leo makes life harder for himself, pushing his wife away when he most needs her and finally reaching understanding with her in the glorious Act II duet, ‘All The Wasted Time’. Laura Pitt-Pulford, as his wife Lucille, is a name to watch. With a soaring voice and an inner fire she captures perfectly Lucille’s resilience in clearing her husband’s name. There isn’t a weak link in the 15 strong cast, but Abiona Omonua as a terrified maid, Terry Doe as the probable killer and Samuel J Weir as a sweet voiced soldier leave lasting impressions.

Parade is one of the strongest productions of a musical currently running in London and the Company wring every ounce of drama from the script and score in this solid, chilling and heart-wrenching revival. Book now and then book again when it secures the transfer it undoubtedly deserves.

5/5

Parade is at Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 until 17 September 2011.

Review: Dan Usztan
Photo: Annabel Vere

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