Thursday 8 June 2023

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.

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