Thursday 19 May 2016

Parade (at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester) - Review

Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester


Music & lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Book by Alfred Uhry
Directed by James Baker

The company of Parade

As musicals go, Jason Robert Brown's Parade is a tough gig. His Tony-winning score is an immense fusion of the sounds of America’s South, tackling a monstrous story of love in adversity and the utter depths of man's capacity to hate. The Leo Frank trial in the early 20th century split America, laying bare the racist core of the Confederacy. 80 years later, Brown's show was to become a troubling piece that held a mirror to its country’s soul - a mirror that to this day a large part of that nation still resolutely refuses to look in.

One of the first productions to be mounted in this newest of Manchester's venues, the old mill building lends itself well to Parade's disquieting storyline. Tough shows however require a strong cast and in this ensemble James Baker has assembled a company of standout performers. The show opens with the uncomfortably stirring The Old Red Hills Of Home and playing the Young Soldier, Aidan Banyard sets spines tingling within the first 30 seconds. As the show unfolds Banyard's vocal magnificence is found to be replicated throughout the entire cast.

Any production of Parade has to rest on strength in its leads of Leo and Lucille Frank. Tom Lloyd shines as the unfortunate Jewish accountant who finds himself framed and racially persecuted for a crime he did not commit, the rape and murder of a 13yo. Lloyd captures Frank's stubborn indignity perfectly, his slight frame metamorphosing into a performance of utter litheness in Come Up To My Office, before slumping back into quiet and purposeful, pleading, principle within It's Hard To Speak My Heart.

More than a match for Lloyd, Laura Harrison's Lucille brings a stunningly voiced maturity to the Southern belle that is Frank's troubled wife. Her initial uncertainty as to his innocence, that slowly forges itself into a righteous defence of her innocent husband is one of the finest female turns seen this year. Brown has written Lucille some spectacular numbers and Harrison brings an especially beautiful resonance to You Don't Know This Man, alongside the heartbreaking irony of her powerful duet with Leo, All The Wasted Time.

There is not a weak link in this cast. Memorable for their multi-role excellence are Matt Mills and James Wolstenhome. The sole black man in the cast, Mills has to pick up all of the parts that demand an African American male - and in playing wily convict Jim Conley, Mills displays a sublime mastery of the blues. There is an unsettling insouciance to his manner that only adds to the show's momentum. Mention too, here, for Shekinah McFarlane's Angela with a performance that more than suggests Cynthia Erivo's style and presence in its pedigree.

Wolstenhome however is simply a chameleon of performing excellence. It is hard to believe his Governor Slaton is played by the same man who also plays the (sometimes gutter) journalist Britt Craig, with his take on Craig's big number, Real Big News proving flawless, shocking and exhilarating.

Andrew Gallo's manipulative prosecutor (and Governor in waiting) Hugh Dorsey brings just the right amount of deviant corruption to the politics of his game, likewise Nathan Summer's portrayal of the evil Tom Watson. Spewing racist bile through the medium of hymn, Summer chills as he taps into the South's collective frustration at their racial purity being defiled,

The show's staging is inspired, with Baker using the mill's full space alongside William Whelton's clever choreography, to jar our attention. If one or two of his directions have wandered slightly off-piste it's no big deal - the strength of this show lies in the stripped-down excellence that Baker coaxes from his actors.

Musically, Tom Chester directs a 9 piece band that pays magnificent service to Brown's musical maelstrom. And in a nod to the trio of Chester, Baker and producer (and local girl) Katy Lipson, Manchester is unlikely to have seen many fringe performances assembled to such a high standard of production value. If you're coming from afar, the show is well worth the train fare. If you live in the North West, Parade is unmissable.

Runs until 5th June
Photo credit: Anthony Robling

Click here to read my foreword to Parade.

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