Friday 4 September 2015

Parade (at London Theatre Workshop) - Review

London Theatre Workshop, London


Music & lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Book by Alfred Uhry
Directed by Jody Tranter

Victoria Hope

Jason Robert Brown’s Parade is a beautifully constructed Tony-winner of a show that shuttered early. Broadway’s loss was to prove London’s gain, as Rob Ashford (who was the original show’s dance captain) went on to stage a sell-out run at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007, before Thom Southerland was to match his feat at the Southwark Playhouse some 4 years later. 

So why did the New York public shun the work? Possibly because Parade holds a mirror up to an ugly stain on America’s history: the brute racism of the country’s Confederate Southland. And no-one, least of all the Americans, likes to hear of their own nation’s fallibilities.

Parade tells the true, tragic tale of Leo Frank an Atlanta Jew who was falsely accused of murdering a Christian girl and subsequently lynched. Frank’s murder trial, in which he was framed before being found guilty (though was quite likely en-route to a pardon at the time of his lynching), polarised a nation, to this day still split by the Mason Dixon line, as the North campaigned for his liberty. The Frank case was made all the more distinctive in American history as it was a white man who was lynched. Brown’s genius is to pull none of his punches and as act two opens with Rumblin’ and a Rollin’, the show’s only two black cast members sing the lyric “there's a black man swingin' in ev'ry tree”, acknowledging the more familiar horror of the Deep South’s racist heritage. 

Jody Tranter is ambitious in mounting the show in the modest confines of Fulham’s London Theatre Workshop. Brown’s glorious music channels styles that range from ballad, to gospel and even a cakewalk with the composer bestowing unforgiving complexity on his melodies. Fortunately under musical director Erika Gundesen’s five piece ensemble, the justice that was denied Leo Frank is beautifully done to the score and a special mention to drummer Tom Chester for nailing the staccato beat of fascism that Brown intended.

Notwithstanding some moments of first rate acting however, with Ross Barnes’ Leo Frank convincing as the humble Frank, the musical magnificence does not extend to the cast’s singing. A modest budget has kept the company un-mic’d and as a consequence, all too often, Brown’s razor sharp lyrics are inaudible – this from a reviewer sat in the front row! And when the ensemble voices kick off (beautifully) any solo moments are lost in a vocal melee.

Songs that should pack a punch, particularly You Don’t Know This Man, fail to hit their intended sweet spot and at times it is hard to find the emotional connection to the work that in a well-executed show, should be wringing the audience’s consciences and heart strings.

There are some moments of class: Lily de-la-Haye’s Lucille Frank is a picture of tragic desperation as the jubilant town celebrates the guilty verdicts in a harrowing act one closer, whilst Nazerene Williams and Michael Moulton deliver the aforementioned second half opener with strength and gusto. If some of the doubling up of roles is occasionally confusing, Victoria Hope’s multi-part contribution to the show is delivered with a vocal punch that makes us sit up and listen. Her take on My Child Will Forgive Me is sublime and if (most of) the rest of the cast were to copy hers’ (and to be fair, also the veteran Dudley Rogers’) excellent voicework, it can only be for the production’s good.

Whilst a modest budget is understandable, sloppy typos in the programme are inexcusable and hint at a lack of attention to detail - Jason Robert Brown and this talented company deserve better from the producers.

Runs to 13th September

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