Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Parade : A New Musical" ~ from 27.10.2007

This review is taken from my reviewblog or 27 October 2007
We celebrated my recent birthday with tickets for Parade at the intimate Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden. Although Parade is still subtitled A New Musical it’s now nine years since its Broadway premiere in 1998 when, despite winning Tony’s for best original score and best book, it ran for only 84 performances at the Lincoln Centre.

Set in Georgia in the Deepest South, the musical concerns the rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a thirteen year old white girl in the Marietta pencil factory where she worked on Confederate Memorial Day in 1913 and the trial of her college-educated, Brooklyn-born Jewish supervisor Leo Frank. He was convicted on the basis of largely trumped-up evidence following a hysterical political, religious and press witch-hunt.

Parade addresses a life and death story-line with other issues: there is a not-very-sub-subtext of the ongoing bitterness of the South fifty years after the Civil War, Northern economic exploitation, anti-Semitism, philistinism and the repression of blacks and women - Mame, clearly it ‘aint.

Interestingly, the book writer Alfred Uhry -who won a Pulitzer Prize for his first play, Driving Miss Daisy - had a direct connection to this true story in that the pencil factory was owned by his mother’s uncle.

The show’s composer Jason Robert Brown has put together a powerful score exploring a range of musical Americana including gospel, ragtime, hymns, country and a chain-gang blues. This is partly in the manner of Sondheim’s dipping into the American songbook in Assassins. There is also some undisguised use of items from the musical writer’s now standard repertoire that I imagine is taught to promising author/composers at universities nowadays.

Christopher Oram’s monochrome set serves the production well providing a blank canvass for the factory, courtroom and governor’s mansion with a balcony even serving as the river bank. All is overseen by a sepia backcloth of haunting faces bearing witness. The stage is smokily lit and manages to evoke the steamy South.

Lately I have increasingly appreciated how much the choreographer can create not only atmosphere but accelerate the drama- as Xavier de Frutos did in Cabaret.

Rob Ashford directs and cleverly choreographs Parade and creates several scenes summing up the atmosphere and ethos of the time such as Memorial Day in Marietta, drama at the court house and bitter scenes at Mary’s funeral.

My strongest memory of the entire production is Leo and Lucille clinging pitifully together after the guilty verdict is announced whilst the mob circle around wildly stamping out their merciless animalistic celebration in a cakewalk of hatred. It conveyed a vicious and bigoted triumphalism many times worse than the coarsest football crowd and made my flesh crawl.

As well as superb ensemble work, Parade is illuminated by brilliant individual performances. I would single out newcomer Stuart Matthew Price trebling up as the young soldier who opens the proceedings, a guard and Frankie Epps who embodies youthful Georgian lust for vengeance. Also Jayne Fisher doubles as the young victim Mary Phagan and the porcelain-complexioned southern belle Lila haunting in a white dress and parasol representing the lost and vanquished South.

Shaun Escoffery is consistently excellent as Newt Lee, Riley and Jim Conley, the perjuring witness and possible actual murderer: his acting and singing are of the highest standard. Similarly, Mark Bonnar and Gary Milner are faultless as the ambitious prosecutor and governor.

Necessarily, the drama relies most upon its central characters Leo Franks and his wife Lucille. As Leo, Bertie Carvel constructs a complex and ultimately convincing character. He begins as an un-likable uptight pedant, finicky and cold: all ticks and twitches with the manner and voice of an autistic Woody Allen. One gets the impression that the small town rednecks disliked him as much for his college education and lack of down-home clubability as for being Jewish.

With continuous anxiety and adversity, he mellows and we see a more human and vulnerable side. He achieves this by a combination of meticulous acting and impeccable delivery of well-constructed, tour de force numbers such as It’s Hard to Speak my Heart.

Lara Pulver conveys the development of Lucille Franks from housewife to doughty campaigner entirely convincingly. Seemingly against the whole world her unconditional loyalty and commitment-as reflected in Do It Alone- ultimately help win over the governor.

Leo’s belated recognition and appreciation of his wife’s devotion and achievement are touching. Their journey alone and ultimately together is perfectly reflected in their glorious duets This is Not Over Yet and All the Wasted Time.

We were settling back into our seats after the interval and chatting to our neighbours about the performance. All agreed it had been powerful and absorbing theatre but the question arose as to whether the story could have been better addressed in a play.

It is undeniable that the musical necessarily simplifies events – such as omitting reference to the powerful groundswell of support for Leo Franks from the more liberal North. Also the format imposes requirements of scene setting, establishment and development of characters and storyline, plus musical and thematic light and shade that the seasoned viewer can see coming. The same applies to an approach to songs based on an intention to cast its net widely across indigenous American song from hymn and march to the blues.

The gloriously catchy and uplifting opening and closing The Old Red Hills of Home is a good example of the problems this creates. The song speaks of the land where honor lives and breathes and glorifies the Old South. Oversimplified though it may be, the point of Parade is that what the South has endured by way of defeat, humiliation and economic exploitation magnified its bitterness, bigotry and philistinism to an extent that it could be easily manipulated by political, religious or press shysters to do truly terrible things - as witness the cruel fate of Leo Franks.

To end the show with a reprise of this tired hymn to the red hills – perhaps red with blood of the different or the outsider- is ironic and leaves one feeling frustrated and depressed that, yet again, the bad guys have won.

These painful issues do not lend themselves particularly easily to the musical. On the other hand, there are moments when the story takes flight. These include Leo Franks witty exposition of the point of view of a Brooklyn Jew in Georgia in How Can I Call This Home and Lucille’s loving defence of her husband in both You Don’t know this Man and Do It Alone. Emotion is heightened and the drama is intensified and expedited by tour de force duets such as This is Not Over Yet and set piece numbers involving most of the cast such as That’s What He Said.

Occasionally references to musicals past grate a little such as when Mrs Phagan’s heartbreaking song of loss at her daughter’s funeral concludes with the shocking And so I forgive you….Jew. The anti-semitism is validly presented but the shock value dissipated somewhat by the use of the same device at the end of If you could see her in Cabaret.

On the whole however I felt that the combination of well-crafted lyrics, diversity of music and dramatic effects meant that the musical form brought much more to this story than a straight play could have done. Despite the contraints and occasional crassness of the musical format, this production includes touching moments of real beauty; it also manages to move, appal, outrage and depress. Above all, it involves its audience.

As a story of bigotry and scapegoating the outsider Parade is relevant; in the light of the McCann case, its depiction of the influence and power-for-ill of the popular press is also timely

The poster for Parade quotes the Sunday Telegraph review “This production ranks as one of the Donmar’s best”. I don’t think Parade is the quite best musical ever staged at the Donmar, but given how it engages its audience it must rank as one of its best productions.

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