I went to see Parade at the Southwark Playhouse last week. It’s a musical with music & lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and book by Alfred Uhry and based on the real murder of 13-year old Mary Phagan in Altanta/Georgia in 1913, for which the Jewish factory manager Leo Frank was blamed and abducted from prison and lynched. Due to the antisemitism surrounding his trial and lynching many Jews fled the state afterwards. It has never been established who the real murderer was.
I never saw the Donmar production, so I’ve got nothing to (visually) compare it to, but I love the cast recording and there are some lovely melodies in it.
The musical starts off with a young soldier (played by Samuel J. Weir – lovely, strong voice!) in Georgia, who is about to go to fight for “the old red hills of home” during the American Civil War. The story then jumps forward to 1913 where the same soldier, now old, is about to take part in the Confederate Memorial Day parade. A woman has prepared a picnic for herself and her husband, but Leo Frank (Alastair Brookshaw), who is originally from New York and now manages a factory in Atlanta, refuses to take part in the festivities and insists he needs to go to work. Watching the parade, he makes it quite clear that he doesn’t belong there (“How Can I Call This Home?”).
Meanwhile, some teenagers, among them 13-year old Mary Phagan, who works in Frank’s factory and her admirer Frankie Epps, enjoy the festivities, until Mary leaves to collect her pay and is later found murdered in the basement of the factory.
Soon, Leo Frank finds himself to be the prime suspect of the murder. After a rather dubious trial and false allegations, he is found guilty and sentenced to death. His wife Lucille (Laura Pitt-Pulford), however, refuses to give up and convinces the governor to re-open the case. He finally changes his sentence to life, knowing very well that this is political suicide, as the people of Atlanta are convinced that it must have been Frank. They decide to kidnap him and lynch him. Even facing his death, Frank refuses to admit his guilt and is hanged. Once more, the Confederate Memorial Day Parade starts and there is a reprise of “The Old Red Hills of Home”.
Having read a bit about the real murder case (which is still unsolved), I found it very interesting that the musical quite clearly takes the side of those who believe that Leo Frank was innocent and even shows us the “real” murderer in the last scene: the African-American factory janitor Jim Conley.
Therefore, the villains of the musical are the prosecutor Dorsey (Mark Inscoe) and the publisher Watson (Simon Bailey), who agitate the masses with their wrong claims about Frank, which in the end leads to his death.
This approach also means that I felt sympathy for Leo Frank right from the beginning, which obviously is mostly due to Alastair Brookshaw’s interpretation. He played him as very awkward around other people, even his wife, and his coldness towards her in the beginning merely a result of this awkwardness. Still, he also had an arrogant side, which he displayed during the court room scenes, up until “It’s Hard To Speak My Heart”, which was very moving. His “Sh’ma” at the end and that whole scene was so intensely acted I found it hard to just sit there and watch.
Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Lucille Frank was very strong. Her “What Am I Waiting For” in the beginning and “Do It Alone”, when Leo doesn’t want her to get involved, were heartbreaking, as was her duet with Leo “All The Wasted Time” when they finally declare their love for each other. There is a big focus on their changing relationship, which makes the end so hard to watch. Still, they are in no way perfect, both have their faults and weaknesses, which is another reason why it’s so easy to relate to them and their story.
Jessica Bastick-Vines is a very sweet, innocent Mary Phagan and really doesn’t look much older than her character’s age. Samantha Seager, who plays her mother, sings a very heartfelt rendition of “My Child Will Forgive Me” during Frank’s trial.
However, for me the “star of the show” (next to Laura Pitt-Pulford and Alastair Brookshaw) was Samuel J. Weir. He’s got a great voice, but it was his acting which completely convinced me. There was so much emotion in his voice in “There Is A Fountain/It Don’t Make Sense”, so much anger, desperation and also helplessness. Even during the abduction and lynching I couldn’t really bring myself to dislike Frankie. He is definitely one to look out for in the future!
They are ably supported by Kelly Agbowu, Simon Bailey, Michael Cotton, Terry Doe, Natalie Green, David Haydn, Mark Inscoe (His “Twenty Miles From Marietta” was one of the highlights for me.), Abiona Omonua, Philip Rham and Victoria Sierra, who play various supporting roles.
The Southwark Playhouse is a very interesting venue with the auditorium situated in a vault, which added to the atmosphere very well. The staging was very simple. There were only wooden floorboards and chairs/tables etc. were brought in by cast members when needed. I really liked it, because it put the main focus on the musical itself. I did wonder in the interval how they would manage to do the hanging without it looking completely fake or tacky, but I shouldn’t have worried, because it was done very effectively.
The sound, unfortunately, wasn’t that great. The music was too loud at several points and drowned out the singing, even though the actors had microphones.
For me, Parade in general and this production of it in particular is pretty much a perfect musical. It’s the perfect example that musicals can tackle more serious topics and don’t need big dance numbers etc. Instead, it does a lot more than that: It moves you and makes you think (sometimes a bit too much, congratulations if you are still reading this ;-)) and it has some great songs in it. Add to this an incredibly talented cast and what more could you possibly want?!?
PHOTO CREDIT: Annabel Vere