Parade

Book by Alfred Uhry, Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, Co-Conceived by Harold Prince
Donmar Warehouse
(2007)

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It is salutary to learn that children went missing and got killed long before our society has reached the state where this seems to be a constant occurrence.

The tale that this musical tells is one of great injustice but, amid the opprobrium that must fall on those who brutally killed an innocent man, we must not forget the fate of a poor young girl who was murdered, probably by a sex fiend, generations before sex registers existed.

Parade is a police/courtroom drama based on the true story of an affluent, intelligent New York Jewish businessman Leo Frank, well played by Bertie Carvel, recently a favourite at the National.

Frank, a shy, nervous man with Lady Macbeth hands, relocated to the Deep South - Atlanta Georgia - to marry sweet Southern belle Lucille, played by Lara Pulver (who also starred in Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years at the Menier last year) and take up a job running a pencil factory.

Even in 1913, prejudice runs rife in a city where the defeat of the Confederate army in the Civil War is still taken hard fifty years after the event. When pretty little Mary Phagan is found dead in the factory, the only two suspects are a black man and a Jew. If the script is to be believed, the investigator/prosecuting attorney and aspirant for high office, Mark Bonnar playing Hugh Dorsey, dismissed limping Newt Lee as one too many black men to be convicted for a crime.

Instead, he focused all of his attention on fabricating a case that would send Leo Frank to the scaffold as a scapegoat in a political battle. The invention is farcical during the early stages of a first half which leads up to a court trial that is unintentionally comical. This is primarily the fault of Driving Miss Daisy writer Alfred Uhry's book, which favours melodrama over reality and creates easy solutions and stereotypes wherever possible.

After the interval, Leo sets out to clear his name using weighty legal tomes but it is closet women's libber Lucille, charming the state Governor at his own Memorial Day Ball, who wins the day, with the tacit support of the country's north including such scions as Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. In no time, she and Gary Milner's Governor become amateur private detectives interrogating those who had lied in court and easily discovering the truth, where the legal experts had failed.

Sadly, there is a limit to the creative abilities of writers and the single fact that is best known about Leo Frank, his lynching by a white supremacist mob, brings the evening to what should be a sombre but quietly spectacular close.

Set in front of designer Christopher Oram's two-storey, wooden ranch-like building with a big budget invested in costumes, the evening directed by choreographer Rob Ashcroft, mixes song, a little dance that reaches its peak at the Governor's Ball and a good dose of explication.

On several occasions, the actors playing the Franks prove themselves capable of delivering both sweet and powerful duets to music that is primarily School of Sondheim. It does, though, offer some great boogie woogie courtesy of Milner again in his guise as drunken journalist, Britt Craig.

However, the pick of the singing comes from a rather sinister, seemingly born-again Christian played by Norman Bowman but especially the really wonderful Shaun Escoffery. He plays three different parts, including likely murderer and one-man chain gang Jim Conley and threatens to steal the show every time that he opens his mouth to reveal a deep, gravelly voice that is unforgettable.

After a mixture of the lively and the soulful, the evening ends with the show's one stopper, The Old Red Hills of Home delivered inappropriately joyfully by the whole cast, bar Bertie Carvel who was still descending from his character's killing noose.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher