Friday 15 September 2017

Parade (at Frogmore Paper Mill) - Review

Frogmore Paper Mill, Apsley


Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Book by Alfred Uhry
Directed by Dan Cowtan

Tré Copeland-Williams

To stage Parade at the Frogmore Paper Mill, a preserved factory that dates back to the Industrial Revolution, was an inspired idea from director Dan Cowtan. The crumbling floors, machinery and warehouses that this immersive production takes its audience through add a profound sense of both time and bleakness to Jason Robert Brown’s Tony-winner.

Parade is a carefully woven fabric of despair, made all the more desperate by the fact that Alfred Uhry’s book is a well crafted historical narrative. When 13 year old Mary Phagan was brutally murdered in the factory where she worked, her employer's Jewish superintendent, Leo Frank, was swiftly arrested and charged with the crime. A trumped up trial of fabricated evidence saw Frank convicted, with Brown's musical proceeding to a tragic conclusion.

The backdrop to these events? A bruised Confederate South, still smarting from losing the American Civil War and for whom racial prejudice was a way of life; the complex love between Frank and his (also Jewish) wife Lucille as he struggled to assimilate into the South; and the opportunistic demagoguery of extremist hate preachers and how the politicians of the day reacted to the world around them.

Connor Dyer and Sherelle Kelleher respectively play Leo and Lucille with Dyer cleverly capturing the complicated, principled man. It’s Hard To Speak My Heart is sung with gorgeous nuance and in one of Brown’s finest duets, All The Wasted Years, the vocal and emotional harmony between the pair is tangible. For actors with as yet little professional exposure, their performances are remarkable and in her solo moments Kelleher is equally impressive, offering up a moving interpretation of You Don’t Know This Man.

To be fair, the cast are all in fine form, with no weak links. Some however, are outstanding. Thomas Isherwood’s Hugh Dorsey offers a resonance that fills the space and commands our attention. Dorsey is a nasty piece of work and Isherwood conveys the man’s amorality to a tee, with his take on Somethin’ Aint Right proving one of the best of recent years. Other plaudits go to some of the (myriad of) modest parts, with Jacob Yolland’s Newt Lee, Tré Copeland-Williams’ Jim Conley, Elise Allanson’s Mrs Phagan and Beaux Harris’ Sally Slaton all making their small but crucial roles credible and believable. As the audience wander from scene to scene, the ghostly presence of Mary Phagan remains throughout and Philippa Rose not only plays Mary’s scripted work convincingly, but her very being on the fringes of each scene, adds a unique atmosphere to this particular production.

The music for this show presents a remarkable challenge. The band are located in a remote (and warm!) room, away from the mill itself, with their playing relayed around the venue via speakers. The cast are denied the usual comfort of monitors displaying the conductor’s baton but nonetheless all rise magnificently to the challenge. They are helped by the fact that the show’s musical director is Erika Gundesen, a woman who for some years now has shown a thorough understanding of this sweeping and varied score. Gundesen gets under the skin of Brown’s range of melodies, motifs and styles, coaxing perfection from her five piece band.

Credit too to Christian Ashby’s sound design. The Frogmore site is a complex complex and Ashby, for the most part, has mastered the most daunting range of challenges. There are times however that lyrics get lost in the mix, especially in multi-part harmonies when the ensemble are in full voice. Brown’s lyrics have all been carefully considered and none should be squandered.

While the use of the mill offers up some wonderful opportunities for imaginative staging, there were moments when short folk in the audience were crowded out of seeing some of the action. Likewise, if one is not quick off the mark in hopping from scene to scene, it can be easy to miss out on the quality vantage points. That being said, it's not often that one can witness The Glory being sung from a genuine riverbank, nor Blues: Feel The Rain Fall being performed by a chain gang literally knee deep, in wellies and dredging a muddy stream. And the prosecco and canapes for the milling audience during Pretty Music are a stroke of genius!

Only on for a week, one wishes the run were longer - Parade at the Mill is a well-deserved sell out.

Runs until 16th September

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