Wednesday 28 June 2023

Tarantino Live - Review

Riverside Studios, London


Adapted and directed by Anderson Davis

Karen Mav

Tarantino Live is a grand title - for a show that is really Tarantino’s soundtracks, live. One of the most influential filmmakers of the last 30 years, Quentin Tarantino’s work is a consistent fusion of razor-sharp scripts, performed by the greatest actors of the time, accompanied by graphically brutal violence, and all set to soundtracks that are each sensational albums of tracks that span both decades and genres.

Tarantino compilations make for eclectic listening and it is a credit to this show’s cast and band that their work so authentically conjures up the musical magic of the movies. In what is possibly the best covers set in town George Strickland’s band, brilliantly supported by occasional actor-musician contributions from the cast are sublime. Musically and vocally, the show is flawless.

But it is a foolish quest to have tried to interpolate Tarantino’s exquisite dialogue onto a Hammersmith stage. Some of the movies' most famous lines are played out, often interwoven from different stories, in sequences that are more akin to snatches from Tarantino's Greatest Hits. It is nigh-on impossible to replicate the droll irony of Samuel L. Jackson, Harvey Keitel et al, a challenge that the producers and creatives would have been wiser to avoid.  

Equally, it is the talent of Hollywood’s special effects crews that make us gasp and wince at the movies' horrific bloodshed. At the Riverside we merely smile in a kind but un-shocked manner, acknowledging the visuals that the production is trying to achieve. The one exception to this critique is the second act's car chase, taken from the movie Death Proof. This little vignette that has to be one of the finest examples of low-budget technical brilliance to be found on a London stage

All of the cast sing magnificently, but particular shout-outs to Maëva Feitelson, Karen Mav, George Maguire and Lifford David Shillingford whose work through the evening is frequently sublime.

If you’re not familiar with Tarantino’s movies you’ll find the show perplexing. If you love the man’s soundtrack choices then sit back and enjoy how skilfully this company perform the classic numbers. In a show that could easily be trimmed by half an hour, Tarantino Live makes for an unusual night’s entertainment.

Runs until 13th August

Thursday 22 June 2023

Mrs Doubtfire - Review

Shaftesbury Theatre, London


Music & Lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick & Karey Kirkpatrick
Book by Karey Kirkpatrick & John O'Farrell
Based on the Twentieth Century Studios Motion Picture
Directed by Jerry Zaks

Laura Tebbutt and Gabriel Vick

When they hand out the Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical next year, look out for Gabriel Vick’s interpretation of Daniel Hillard. Vick's translation from screen to stage of perhaps the movies’ most famous nanny since Mary Poppins is nothing short of remarkable. With an uncanny vocal dexterity and pinpoint stage presence, he takes Robin Williams’ Golden Globe-winning creation and in a dazzling performance, lifts the show.

Back in the day the genius of the movie was not just in Williams’ performance, but in the  film’s ability to tell its story and its pathos with a convincing humanity. On stage, the pathos is reduced to being transmitted through song and while this musical's acting may be impressive, the songs are mostly average served with a generous helping of cheese. If there’s a musical highlight of the evening it is He Lied To Me a wonderfully pastiche'd flamenco number sung by Lisa Mathieson midway through act two.

Vick’s costuming is terrific, however his Robin Williams lookalike prosthetic face is a distraction that obstructs the connection between actor and audience. Vick's voice can be heard, but the prosthetic means the audience are never permitted to see the extent of his facial acting range. The supporting cast are all on fine form. Laura Tebbutt as Daniel's wife Miranda is an assured delight, slotting well into an essentially two-dimensional role. Similarly Cameron Blakely as Daniel’s brother Frank, is a modest part but an inspired creation nonetheless.

Jerry Zaks directs the piece with suitable Broadway pizzazz alongside Lorin Latarro’s imaginative choreography. Elliot Ware’s 10-piece band make fine work of the Kirkpatricks’ score.

Colourful and touching, Mrs Doubtfire is an affectionate take on one of the funniest stories ever told.

Booking until 13th January 2024
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Wednesday 21 June 2023

The Pillowman - Review

Duke of York's Theatre, London


Written by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Matthew Dunster

Lily Allen and Steve Pemberton

Martin McDonagh’s absurdist play is an exploration of the freedom of speech and the suppression of dissent. 

In a dystopian world where the writer Katurian (played by Lily Allen) and her brother Michal (Matthew Tennyson) have grown up in an abusive family and where Tupolski (Steve Pemberton) and Ariel (Paul Kaye), the two cops investigating a series of murders that appear to have been committed by the siblings are themselves damaged individuals, little is what it seems.

McDonagh messes with our minds as Katurian’s short stories blur in and out of reality, with much of the play’s narrative, both spoken and occasionally physically performed, proving horrifically graphic. 

Technically, the production’s staging is breathtaking. Allen is responsible for delivering a raft of mind-boggling monologues, proving magnificent in the role. Equally Pemberton, and Kaye in particular, are compelling policemen. Anna Fleischle’s designs hitched to Neil Austin’s lighting work and Dick Straker’s videos ingeniously blur our perceptions, contributing to the evening’s sense of profound disquiet and even moments of awkward humour.

McDonagh’s argument ultimately suggests that it is the authoritarian state that stifles ideas. While there is of course some credence to this, it is also important to note that in 2023 books are being burned and voices are being silenced, not by the authorities, but by the pile-on mobs of social media and self-appointed cultural apparatchiks who are determining what ideas are and are not, acceptable. Thus the question has to be posed: Is The Pillowman, a play first performed some twenty years ago, an already out of date cliché?

Not an easy night out by any means - but a striking and memorable piece of theatre.

Runs until 2nd September
Photo credit Johan Persson

Tuesday 20 June 2023

The Third Man - Review

Menier Chocolate Factory, London


Music by George Fenton
Lyrics & book by Don Black & Christopher Hampton
Directed by Trevor Nunn

Sam Underwood and Natalie Dunne

Film noir clearly has an attraction for Don Black and Christopher Hampton. Having translated Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard from screen to stage, they now fix their canon on Carol Reed’s 1949 Oscar-winner The Third Man. Set to George Fenton’s score, Graham Greene’s Vienna-based story of mystery, romance and murderous corruption plays out in a modestly staged production at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

It’s an ambitious conceit to take such a tightly focused movie, famous for its shadows, intrigue and of course THAT theme tune, but Black and Hampton’s treatment under Trevor Nunn’s directing, never takes itself too seriously. Sam Underwood plays Holly Martins, the American writer (Why was it always an American writer who’s the protagonist in these tales of the 1930s and 40s? Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret etc etc) who finds himself caught up in the Austrian capital's murky black-market world as he searches for his old friend Harry Lime. Those familiar with the story will know of Lime’s treachery and it is a credit to this production as to how the serpentine twists of Greene’s plot are revealed.

Natalie Dunne smoulders with delicious contempt as femme fatale Anna Schmidt and there is an equally impressive turn from the talented Simon Bailey. The show’s ensemble make up a raft of two-dimensional characters that all add to creating the show’s Vienna-lite experience.

Above the performing space Tamara Saringer’s band are a delight, with Fenton’s score reverently acknowledging Anton Karas’ famous Harry Lime Theme from the movie, with the occasional motif. Down below, Paul Farnsworth’s set designs effectively utilise the Menier’s grimy heritage.

A loving tribute to a classic movie, The Third Man makes for an evening of charming musical theatre.

Runs until 9th September
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Saturday 17 June 2023

The Crucible - Review

Gielgud Theatre, London


Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Lyndsey Turner

Matthew Marsh and the girls of Salem

Transferring across the Thames to the West End, the National Theatre’s production of The Crucible, masterful last year in the Olivier, has only improved with the passage of time with Lyndsey Turner’s interpretation of Arthur Miller’s bitter allegory on McCarthyist America continuing to fuse brilliant writing with a stunning troupe of actors.

The play famously examines the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and considers how easily truth can be upended by widely-spread canards that defy both science and belief if enough people buy into the lie. One does not have to look too far in our modern world to see the chilling parallels between 17th century Massachusetts and the 21st century Western world.

But the strength of Miller’s writing goes so much deeper than a witch-hunt on American’s eastern seaboard. His narrative tests the very fabrics of love, integrity and above all humanity.

There are some cast changes from the South Bank’s 2022 company. Brian Gleeson takes over as John Proctor the story’s fallible everyman, a farmer whose principles humble us all, with Caitlin FitzGerald now playing his wife Elizabeth. Both performances are outstanding with the pair creating a devastatingly credible love that can only end in tragedy. Matthew Marsh reprises his role as Deputy Governor Danforth, the inquisitor of the piece. Marsh is villainous yet imperious and earns our contempt without once descending into melodrama. Equally, in a modest yet critical role for highlighting the murderous madness of the times, Karl Johnson breaks our hearts as the heroic veteran Giles Corey.

And then there are the young girls on whose false testimony innocents were hung and a society devastated. Newcomers again step into these roles, with Milly Alcock's Abigail Williams and Nia Towle as Mary Warren both terrifying as they rise to the challenge of leading the story's "children" in their lies.

Drama does not get better than this. Only on until September, The Crucible is not only unmissable theatre, it is essential theatre. Just go!

Runs until 2nd September
Photo credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Thursday 15 June 2023

Idiots Assemble - Spitting Image - The Musical - Review

Phoenix Theatre, London


Written by Al Murray, Matt Forde and Sean Foley
Directed by Sean Foley

Vladimir Putin in Spitting Image - The Musical

Back in the 1980s Spitting Image was a ground-breaking TV series that brilliantly satirised the politicians and celebrities of the day with ingeniously caricatured latex puppets and scripts that mocked all. It was the time of Margaret Thatcher, in turn followed by John Major and it was also a time when to offend was a sacrosanct part of British comedy, political correctness having barely been invented.

Each episode of that show lasted for 30 minutes, short enough to keep writers on their toes with scripts and gags honed to razor-sharp accuracy and all rounded off each week with a punchy musical number that spoofed some hit record of the time with more top-notch irreverence. Peter Fluck and Roger Law were the series' sculpting geniuses whose eyes for ridiculing the great and the not-so-great was peerless. Law lends his name and his vision to this current iteration as Caricaturist Supremo and superficially at least, his inspired vision lingers on.

But a 30-minute blast of Spitting Image on the telly was to prove the medium’s perfect time slot. In a full blown West End musical, two hours proves to be too long to sustain what should otherwise be a series of brilliant jokes.

To be fair, the show’s first act has moments of platinum-plated comedy. The Royals (as was the case back in the day) get treated mercilessly by the writers, who even include an affectionately portrayed ghost of the late Queen Elizabeth II. The recently crowned King Charles III is royally ridiculed as are his sons, wife and brother Andrew and rightly so. Politicians from across the global political spectrum are on the production’s hit list, with a musical number from the Russian President, Putin On The Blitz (geddit?) being perhaps the evening’s lyrical triumph. The first half’s penultimate song has a latex Carrie Johnson leading a chorus of dancing six-foot phalli in All Men Think With Their Dicks, before a line-up of the Tory leadership sing Cabaret's chilling Tomorrow Belongs To Me while the aforementioned penises, complete with winking meatuses, ejaculate skeins of long white paper streamers before the half-time curtain falls. The smuttiest knob-gag in town, but very funny.

The second half however descends into a drawn-out charade of the already thinly-stretched plot-lines worsened by a political bias that transcends all satire and morphs into a tiresome, shallow rant. The musical's incongruous nods to the TV show's all grey John Major and all-powerful Thatcher characters were appreciated by the mostly greying audience, and the ghost-Queen’s closing number of Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think was a neat touch, as was her being accompanied by Brian May. But they were too little, too late.

Script aside - the show is a work of impressive theatrical wizardry with the programme listing a massive technical crew. On stage in each performance, twelve puppeteers make the latex live, perfectly synching their movements to the pre-recorded dialogue and music and as should be the way with all good puppet-based shows, those dozen or so humans “disappear” from our conscious vision and we only see the characters they are animating. Equally Alexander Bermange has done a fine job with the show’s recorded backing music.

The bus pass brigade will likely enjoy this mostly anodyne fayre, but Spitting Image died a natural TV death a long time ago. It should have been allowed to rest in peace.

Runs until 26th August

42nd Street - Review

Sadler's Wells Theatre, London


Music by Harry Warren
Lyrics by Al Dubin
Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble
Directed by Jonathan Church

Nicole-Lily Baisden and the company of 42nd Street

Arriving at Sadler’s Wells for a month’s residency, Jonathan Church’s touring production of 42nd Street is an immaculately delivered five-star delight.

The fabled story of chorus girl Peggy Sawyer who gets her lucky break in a Broadway show when leading lady Dorothy Brock sustains an equally unlucky break to her ankle, is as old as the hills and as corny too. For such a yarn to suspend the disbelief of a hackneyed modern audience demands perfection from its performers - and Church, with choreographer Bill Deamer does just that, coaxing magical voice and footwork from across his company.

Nicole-Lily Baisden is Peggy. Outstanding in the recent Barbican-based Anything Goes, Baisden’s star now shines even more brilliantly. She captures Peggy’s initial frail vulnerability, and with a combination of her beautiful singing and mesmerising tap-dance skill, takes the audience with her on her fairy-tale journey.

Adam Garcia headlines as Julian Marsh, the demanding director of Pretty Lady, 42nd Street’s ‘show within a show’. Garcia’s musical theatre credentials are impeccable and he is compelling in both song and dance. As the villain of the piece (albeit with an ultimate heart of gold) Ruthie Henshall is similarly outstanding as Dorothy Brock with Henshall's singing, notably in I Only Have Eyes For You, proving a spine-tingling treat.

The shows comedy lines demand assured timing and confidence in their delivery. Les Dennis leads the line of featured performers carrying this responsibility and although Dennis’ remarkable background in stand-up and TV comedy gives him a raft of experience, he is a magnificent trouper who never overshadows Anthony Ofoegbu and Josefina Gabrielle in their contributions to the show’s gag content. Gabrielle also delivers moments of sung perfection in her role.

This is a production designed for the road with Robert Jones’ sets and Jon Driscoll’s projections providing a fine backdrop to the evening. If there is one small flaw it is that the ensemble is smaller than the script demands - but if the producers have understandably had to cut back on quantity, they score full marks for their show’s quality. The show’s music however sounds as if no expense has been spared with Jennifer Whyte’s 14-piece band making glorious work of Harry Warren’s classic melodies.

Shuffle off to Sadler’s Wells or catch the show touring until the Autumn. Either way, this take on 42nd Street makes for a fabulous night at the theatre.

Runs until 2nd July and then on tour
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Monday 12 June 2023

Snakehead - Review

Hope Theatre, London


Written and directed by Samuel Rees

Sian Maxwell

Snakehead is a new play that proves all you need is a good story and a passionate actress to make an evening of classy pub-theatre worthwhile.

Sian Maxwell is M, a woman whose emotions, passion, piercing blue eyes and good strong voice make the show. M’s story and experiences are upsetting. In her monologue we learn of the abuse that she has suffered at the hands of a manipulative and wealthy man, with her narrative forcing the audience to ruminate on society and the double standards by which men and women can be judged.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy is the number of women who continue to experience similar trauma today. The slut-shaming of women, while failing to hold men responsible for their actions, continues to prevail.

A neat dramatic touch sees M expose her emotions though music. The stronger the emotion, the heavier the music, performed very well on the night by Max Alexander Taylor.

Snakehead is powerful and compelling gig-theatre.

Runs until 24th June
Reviewed by Eris

Saturday 10 June 2023

Assassins - Review

Festival Theatre, Chichester


Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by Polly Findlay

Danny Mac

Only on for a ridiculously short two-week run, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is a beautifully engineered weapon, which in the hands of Polly Findlay and her company of marksmen delivers a rifle-shot straight to the heart of American culture and politics. An all-American treat, Assassins is as scathing of American hypocrisies as Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is of the corrupt British elite.

A wickedly satirical look at the individuals who, throughout history, have taken a (sometimes fatal) shot at their President, Sondheim’s depiction of these assassins / would-be assassins is as brutal as their own intentions, with all featuring on the spectrum of social inadequacy. The show’s genius however lies in the bravado of Sondheim’s lyrical wit that,  applied to John Weidman’s book and under Findlay’s direction of a stellar cast, delivers some of the finest performances in musical theatre to be found this year.

The audience in Chichester’s Festival Theatre are pumped before the show even begins. Lizzie Clachan’s designs see the Festival’s thrust stage transformed into a TV studio cum Oval Office, with patriotic American drapes festooning the auditorium. Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ plays as the popcorn-bearing (yes, Chichester are selling popcorn for this one) throng take their seats. And in what must surely be another first for this august theatrical venue, mise-en-scene cheerleaders whip the crowd into frenzied Mexican waves anticipating kick-off.  Big screens countdown the seconds before Peter Forbes as The Proprietor takes the stage, getting proceedings underway with Everybody’s Got The Right. 

Forbes is magnificently Trumpian in his style – and while his take on the role is a masterful trompe l’oeil, it shows a partisan interpretation from Findlay that skews Sondheim’s otherwise unbiased critique of the American machine. Trump may well be a great visual in terms of razzamatazz and bombast – but Findlay’s omission of any suggested reference to the current senile and absent-minded White House incumbent, that may have offered some balance, belies her personal politics.

A scene from Assassins

Danny Mac heads the list of the show’s gunmen and women, playing Abraham Lincoln’s killer John Wilkes Booth. Mac’s take on the role is assured and defined, taking Sondheim’s wry interpretation of his character and giving it a fabulously nuanced interpretation. Booth’s interaction with Lee Harvey Oswald (Samuel Thomas) in the Texas School Book Depository, telling the nervous, hesitant and self-doubting Oswald that by shooting JFK his place in history will be assured is a dramatic masterpiece. The exchanges between these two in the number November 22nd 1963 demands flawless performance skills and with fine ensemble work in support, the song lands with pinpoint accuracy.

Carly Mercedes Dyer again shows her excellence as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme an acolyte of Charles Manson with a plan to shoot Gerald Ford. Everything that Dyer does is outstanding and it can only be a matter of time before she is cast to headline a major musical. Nick Holder chills as Samuel Byck, the wannabe loser who believes his problems will be solved by assassinating Richard Nixon. Byck is offered no solo songs, just monologues, with Holder nailing the complex role. Jack Shalloo is equally strong as John Hinckley, the Jodie Foster-obsessed loser, out to shoot Ronald Reagan.

Sondheim’s score is another beauty. Jo Cichonska conducts her band, all finely decked out in Americana and seated in a circular pit that lines the front of the stage, with a stylish aplomb. Their take on these inspired melodies is unlikely to be bettered.

This glorious production merits a transfer to a London stage. Whether there is a mainstream British appetite for such a deeply cynical view of the USA is, of course, a different matter.

Until then, head to Chichester – for outstanding musical theatre, Assassins is unmissable.

Runs until 24th June
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Friday 9 June 2023

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Book & lyrics by Jethro Compton
Music & lyrics by Darren Clark
Directed & designed by Jethro Compton

Molly Osborne and Jamie Parker

This new musical is a fine fusion of music, song and acting. Taking F.Scott Fitzgerald’s famous /short story of a baby born as an old man who then spends his life getting younger, Jethro Compton and Darren Clark have crafted the yarn into a fabulous fable.

Compton has translated Fitzgerald’s tale to a Cornish setting and the show proves to be a lovingly crafted tribute to that region. With Button being born aged 70 in 1918, the narrative also offers an eclectic perspective on the 20th century.

The musical had an earlier outing at the other Southwark Playhouse space in 2019, where the cramped stage was cluttered with the trappings of the Cornish fishing communities. In this new larger venue those trappings are still there, only now they enhance rather than overpower the musical. And much as this show and its songs are all about time, so too have the last 4 years allowed the show to mature beautifully. No longer is Benjamin portrayed by a puppet, but in a stroke of inspired casting, Jamie Parker plays the title role. Wisely avoiding prosthetics to show his reverse-ageing, Parker instead relies upon a few distinctive costume touches (bowler hat and pipe suggesting his dotage) and above all delivers a masterclass in performance, convincing us of his age throughout the show as we witness his transformation from being aged 70 to around 20 or so.

As his life, love, and family age around him, Parker elicits genuine and profound sympathy as he inches towards the poignant and inevitable endgame that we know awaits him. 

It’s not just Parker though. Compton has assembled a magnificent multi-role company of 11 who perfectly pick up all manner of parts. Notable amongst this troupe is Molly Osborne as Elowen, Benjamin’s love and then his wife. All the company are magnificently voiced and it is a credit to them that Compton’s fast-moving lyrics (that occasionally drift too far into exposition) are crystal clear.

Credit too to these actors for creating one of the finest actor-musician troupes ever assembled. The range of instruments played is orchestral in its range with these multi-skilled performers offering up a full complement of string, wind and percussion and creating a sound that is, quite simply, gorgeous.

If there’s a flaw to the piece it’s in the second half, where the credibility of Benjamin’s return to his ultimate nativity would be a tough nut for any dramatist to crack. The show’s creatives wisely avoid dressing Parker as an adult-baby, but there are moments towards the end when perhaps a little too much is asked of the audience’s powers of imagination.  

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a bold and brilliant contribution to the canon of new musical writing.

Runs until 1st July
Photo credit: Juan Coolio

Thursday 8 June 2023

New York, New York - Review

St. James Theatre, New York


Music & lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb
Additional lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Written by David Thompson
Co-written by Sharon Washington
Directed & choreographed by Susan Stroman

The company of New York, New York

Recently opened on Broadway, New York, New York is a new musical, loosely drawn from the 1977 movie but re-engineered with the compilation of John Kander and Fred Ebb numbers now enhanced with additional lyrics from Lin-Manuel Miranda. 

The 1977 tale was of a bittersweet and tempestuous romance that evolved between saxophonist Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and singer Francine (Liza Minnelli). This time around David Thompson with Sharon Washington, both long time collaborators with Kander and the late Ebb, have re-imagined a narrative that captures the movie’s complex emotional travails but, reflecting the post-war placing of the plot, adds an additional thread focussing on the racism that black Americans were facing at that time (and for some decades after). In this iteration of the yarn it is Colton Ryan and Anna Uzele who play Jimmy and Francine with assured talent.

Thompson and Washington also transform the original tightly drawn narrative into more of a melting-pot with the introduction of  minor Hispanic and Jewish sun-plots. At times these underlying stories become a mawkish distraction, and one is left wishing that the show could have been more of a straightforward screen-to-stage translation of the movie. That some of those 1977 songs (not all of which were by Kander and Ebb) have also been dropped is another disappointment.

But many aspects of what are left still make for a show with outstanding moments of musical theatricality. Susan Stroman directs and choregraphs and there are few of her peers that can helm a show with such audacious vision and talent. Wine and Peaches is a number that is stunningly tap-danced by a company of construction workers high above the clouds atop the steel beams of a skyscraper that they are building. And equally Stroman’s vision in how she directs Uzele to deliver those Kander and Ebb gems of But The World Goes Round and the show’s eponymous title number is musical theatre gold.

Under Susan Stroman’s vision, New York, New York makes for a classy night at the theatre.

Booking to 14th January 2024

The Sweet Caroline Ultimate Tribute Event - Review

Adelphi Theatre, London


Gary Ryan

The Sweet Caroline Ultimate Tribute event, from the creators of Fastlove and The Magic of Motown, takes one on a musical journey that bridges generations through music and is a tribute to Neil Diamond, a man who with more than 130 million records sold worldwide, now marks the 50th anniversary of his career.

Simply staged, with only a few lighting changes during the show, Gary Ryan and his band deliver an exceptional take on a selection of Diamond’s classic numbers. The evening’s first act is mainly based on Diamond's early career and solo albums and is a fascinating trip back in time. One is transported to the 1960s and 70s with songs like "I’m A Believer", crossing through different music styles that range from country with songs like "Cracklin' Rosie" to reggae with songs like "Red Red Wine". Throughout, Ryan shares personal anecdotes about his relationship with Neil Diamond's music.

The show however lacks a little structure and occasionally the performances seemed flat. Perhaps if the evening's visual components were enhanced - maybe some well imagined projections - it may add to a greater audience connection?

The music though is flawless. The second half proving a treat with Diamond’s classics including "Forever in Blue Jeans" and "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," before concluding with "Sweet Caroline" and "I Am... I Said" the perfect way to wrap up the performance.

Reviewed by Ana Gonzalez

Parade - Review

Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York


Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Book by Alfred Uhry
Directed by Michael Arden

Micaela Diamond and Ben Platt

It is nearly 25 years since Parade premiered on Broadway, where it was to win two Tonys (out of nine nominations) but yet close after barely three months of performances. Fast forward to 2023 where this first Broadway revival of the show has already garnered 6 Tony nominations and plays to a much changed world than when it first opened in 1998.

Parade was always a bold and brave concept for a musical. It was legendary director Hal Prince who co-conceived the show, turning to Brown when Stephen Sondheim was unavailable. Drawn from the early 20th century history of Georgia USA, Alfred Uhry's book tells of the Jewish Atlantan Leo Frank, wrongly accused and subsequently found guilty, of the murder of Mary Phagan, a young Christian child. Originally from New York, so an outsider as well as a Jew, Frank found himself the focus of extreme antisemitism that was to have a tragic outcome. The genius of Brown’s writing lies not just in his music that draws from a raft of Southern styles and influences, but in his lyrics that not only chart the horrific evolution of the murderous right-wing extremism of the time, but also catches moments of underlying wry American humour, as well as the profound and loving pathos of the relationship between Frank and his wife Lucille.

Having reviewed numerous productions of Parade over recent years, this marks the first mainstream commercial take on the work that has covered, and notwithstanding the musical excellence heard in those previous iterations, to hear Brown’s score, played here magnificently by Tom Murray’s 18-piece band, is an absolute treat.

Ben Platt is a magnificent Leo, who defines the man’s transition from an orthodox chauvinist into a loving and appreciative husband in a beautifully nuanced interpretation. Platt’s vocals are also tremendous, never better defined that in that wondrous vocal leap that sees him transformed from the fantastical and vile (albeit imagined) predator in Come Up To My Office to a pleading, vulnerable innocent facing a monstrous world in It’s Hard To Speak My Heart. Platt also nails the wit of How Can I Call This Home?, a number that defines his incredulity, as a “Yankee with a college education”, he tries to get to grips with the redneck South. 

Opposite Platt, Micaela Diamond takes on the equally challenging role of Lucille. There is excellence in much of Diamond’s work, particularly in her duets This Is Not Over Yet and All the Wasted Time, but her solo work, especially in the first act’s You Don’t Know This Man fails to hit the spot.

Other notable vocal contributions come from Alex Joseph Grayson as convicted criminal Jim Conley who smashes his every song out of the park and also from Kelli Barrett as Mrs Phagan, the mother of the murdered child. Barrett captures not only a poignant grief at her terrible loss, but also a palpable Jew-hatred in her remarkable delivery of My Child Will Forgive Me.

Seeing this show for the first time in the USA rather than in the UK, it is pleasing to see Brown’s New York wisecracks that lampoon Southern stereotypes, landing to audience laughter rather than falling flat to a house full of Brits, who struggle to grasp the writer's brilliant irony

The show’s design is simple, with most of the cast on-stage throughout and principle action playing out on a raised central dais in front of projected scenic images. There is however a curious projection that occurs in the pre-show mise-en-scene as the audience are taking their seats. An actual newspaper report of the Leo Frank story, from back in the day, is shown on the screen that graphically tells of Frank’s ultimate fate. This is a curious and patronising decision by the show’s creative team, for while the themes and history of Parade are undoubtedly educational and important, to undermine the musical’s narrative and not only that but in front of New York audiences that are mostly made up of Yankees with a college education, is not fair on the show. It is also, for those in the audience unaware of how the Leo Frank saga plays out and are hopefully looking for the musical to tell them a story, one heck of a spoiler.

If you love Brown’s score you are unlikely to hear it played finer than this.

Runs until 6th August

See below for my programme notes, written to accompany the production of Parade that opened the Hope Mill Theatre in 2016

My Thoughts on Jason Robert Brown's Parade 
Written by Jonathan Baz and published in 2016

Jason Robert Brown’s Tony-winner kicks off during the 1913 Confederate Memorial Day Parade in Atlanta, Georgia. The Civil War had been fought (and lost) some 50 years earlier and it is the aftermath of that defeat that powers the context of this show. 

The Southern States had fought the North in a desperate, bloody struggle to hold on to their right to enslave African Americans. Slavery was (and is) de-humanising and barbaric and yet, to a majority of folk in the Confederacy, it was not only acceptable, it was desirable. Southern racism was ingrained and the Confederate flag remains a chilling emblem of the white supremacists.

As that 1913 parade passed by, Mary Phagan a white 13 year old girl from Marietta, just outside Atlanta, was brutally raped and murdered in the city’s pencil factory where she worked. Amid a hue and cry for justice, it didn't take Atlanta’s Police Department long to be conveniently pointed in the wrong direction, accusing Leo Frank, the factory superintendent. Frank may have been white, but he was a Yankee from the North and worse, a Jew. 

Parade explores how Frank was subsequently framed and how he and his wife Lucille, fought back. Child abuse and murder may not be regular subjects for a musical theatre treatment, yet from this dark core, composer Jason Robert Brown has fashioned one of the finest musicals to have emerged in the last 20 years.

Parade succeeds on so many levels. It has a finely crafted score and libretto, it's a history lesson and a towering love story. Brown won a Tony for the score; listen out for the traditional melodies of the South, carefully woven into his work. There’s Gospel, Spiritual, Blues and Swing in there, with the composer saving perhaps one of musical theatre’s finest coups for his Act One Finale. As Parade’s narrative reaches a horrendous turning point, Brown has his citizens of Atlanta launch into an exhilarating cakewalk. Where Kander and Ebb brought Cabaret’s first half to a troubling close with ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’, Brown’s cakewalk juxtaposes jubilation with injustice. Rarely has an array of swirling Southern petticoats and frocks been quite so stomach churning.

As a history lesson, Parade is up there with the best. The opening number ‘The Old Red Hills Of Home’ hits the audience with an unforgiving staccato percussion that soon includes a funereal chime alongside discordant strings, before evolving into a chilling yet (whisper it not) discomfortingly stirring anthem. The song is remarkable in that between its opening and closing bars, Brown tells the entire story of the South’s Civil War. A young and handsome Confederate soldier sings the opening lines, who by the song’s end is a gnarled and crippled veteran. Wounded and bitter, the old soldier dreams of the ‘lives that we led when the South land was free’. 

Brown also kicks off the second half with a punch. While Parade is famously about anti-Semitism, ‘A Rumblin’ And A Rollin’ is sung by two of the Governor of Georgia’s African American Domestic Staff, both well aware that while the Frank furore is gripping the nation, their lot hasn't significantly changed, even after the abolition of slavery. Riley, the Governor’s Chauffeur has a line ‘the local hotels wouldn't be so packed, if a little black girl had gotten attacked’ that should prick at America’s collective conscience even today, while his killer lyric a few bars on, ‘there’s a black man swingin’ in every tree, but they don't never pay attention!’ has a devastating simplicity.

Parade also beats to the drum of a passionate love story. Early on we find Leo and Lucille questioning their very different Jewish lifestyles. He’s from Brooklyn, a ‘Yankee with a college education’, while she is a privileged belle about whom Frank observes ‘for the life of me I cannot understand how God created you people Jewish AND Southern!’. There is a cultural gulf between the pair which, upon Leo’s arrest, only widens. How Alfred Uhry’s book and Brown’s lyrics portray the couple’s deepening love, is a literary master stroke. 

While the show was to receive numerous nominations in both Broadway’s 1999 awards season and later in 2008 on its London opening, the Opening at New York's Lincoln Centre disappointed, running for barely 100 performances. Variety magazine called it the ‘ultimate feel-bad musical’ and the crowds stayed away.

It was however, to be at London’s modest Donmar Warehouse, directed by Rob Ashford who had been the show's original Dance Captain on Broadway, that the show was to soar. So much so that Brown took the Donmar production back for a successful run in Los Angeles, with Lara Pulver, the Donmar’s Lucille, still in the lead. Thom Southerland’s fringe production a few years later at London’s Southwark Playhouse received similar plaudits. 

So why was Parade loved in London, yet shunned in New York? Wise theatre heads have suggested that perhaps Americans have little appetite for a musical that focuses upon such an ugly feature of their country’s history.

100 years on, what has been the legacy of the Frank case? For good, it served to spawn the Anti-Defamation League, America’s anti-fascist organisation. However the episode also re-ignited the burning crosses of the Klu Klux Klan. I recently visited Marietta to see for myself where Leo Frank’s story ended. Sadly, even if un-surprisingly, the site isn't marked amidst what is now a busy road intersection and if you didn't know what you were looking for, you'd never know you've been there.

And think back to last year, with the horrific massacre of 9 Black Americans, shot as they prayed in a South Carolina church, by a man who was pictured proudly waving the Confederate flag. Incredibly up until last year, a handful of States still flew that flag from government buildings, with Mississippi still including the Confederate emblem as a component of its state flag to this day. 

The Leo Frank trial and its aftermath ripped a nation apart, re-opening fault lines that to this day have barely healed.