Stuart Matthew Price
This dark, unusual musical about murder and anti-Semitism in the Deep South was first seen in New York in 1998. It ran for only a short time, less than ninety performances, and though its a complex and intriguing piece of theatre, its easy to see why it closed so quickly. It is not a musical that makes for easy viewing. Frothy it is not.
Parade is set in Atlanta, Georgia, in the early years of the 20th century. It is Confederate Memorial Day and a 13 year old girl is found raped and murdered in the pencil factory where she worked. Suspicion falls on the factory superintendent, Leo Frank, a Jewish man from Brooklyn, an outsider in every sense with a wife who would prefer he say “howdy not shalom.”
Frank is arrested, tried and sentenced to death. A frenzy ensues around his case, with several other factory girls queuing up the accuse him of inappropriate behaviour and an eye witness is conveniently found to testify to his guilt. However much of this testimony is questionable to say the least, and there are sufficient misgivings about his conviction for his sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment. But this does not go down well with the local community and they exert a ‘justice’ of their own the kind of justice that involves hoods and a long length of rope.
Based on a true event, the show with book by Alfred Uhry and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown of The Last Five Years fame examines the case in some detail. It begins with a prologue about the aftermath of the civil war in the South, about Georgia pride and Southern values, about love for “the old red hills of home.” This was a world Frank did not understand or care for – and nor, it turns out, did it care for him.
Bertie Carvel is simply superb as Frank, anxious and twitchy; cold, somewhat prim and aloof, not an easy man to warm to. He seems to have done little to try to fit in to his new life in the South and this, coupled with his extremely nervy reaction in the immediate aftermath of finding out about the crime, led to suspicion falling at his door.
Lara Pulver is equally good as his wife, Lucille. Initially a rather neglected and frustrated figure, the relationship between her and her husband seems to blossom and grow as she helps him fight his case. Pulvers is a dignified and moving performance, though at times the character of Lucille seems to have been written with the intent of lending warmth and humanity to the difficult twitchy Leo. Her total devotion and complete absence of, even momentary, doubt as to her husbands innocence seems just a little too neat.
There are some superb vocal performances among the cast, especially Shaun Escoffery as the black convict pressed into testifying against Frank to make things easier on himself. The music incorporates a number of styles, from ho-downs and formal dances of the South to more linguistically twisty Sondhiem-esque numbers. The choreography is also particularly successful at conveying the growing frenzy that surrounded the case, with dancers tearing madly round the stage and skidding to the floor in a seemingly chaotic fashion.
There is much to admire about this production, I just found the use of the musical form to explore such a grim, if fascinating, event, a little uncomfortable. Something about it didnt sit well, for my tastes. Musicals, of course, dont have to be all fluff and uplift, but in the case of this complex story, I would have preferred a more conventional dramatic approach. I suspect it will prove quite divisive for fans of musical theatre for these very reasons too. This is an interesting production certainly, but also a problematic one; moving and, at times, very powerful but also, in the end, too dark to be satisfying.