It is incredibly sad and deeply unsettling when one realises that the themes running though Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s 1998 Tony Award winning musical “Parade” are still being splashed across news headlines today. Although the true-life scandal involving Jewish factory manager Leo Frank occurred slightly over one hundred years ago, xenophobia, victimization, social injustice, sensationalism, corruption, witch-hunting, religious extremism and small-mindedness are still very much prevalent today.
When Leo Frank, a tense and straight-laced Jewish accountant from New York, arrives in Georgia with his wife Lucille to take up a job managing a pencil factory, he finds himself very uncomfortable around “these people” due to his Judaism and higher education. Being the outsider in a close-knit community makes him the prime suspect when the body of thirteen-year-old employee, Mary Phagan, is discovered raped and murdered in the basement of his factory. After deciding that “hanging another Nigra ain’t enough this time”, the police, led by prosecutor and aspiring politician Hugh Dorsey, decide to lay the blame on Frank instead. The small-town community are instantly led to believe this with help from reporter Britt Craig and Tom Watson (a writer for an extremist right-wing newspaper), and through the underhanded tactics of Dorsey, Frank is convicted and sentenced to hang.
With help from Frank’s wife Lucille, who starts to reveal Dorsey’s improper leading of witnesses, the Governor re-opens the case and Frank is temporarily given a “life-in-prison” sentence at an undisclosed prison farm. However, an angry lynch-mob, furious at this decision, discover where he is, kidnap him and hang him from an oak-tree as their own brand of “justice”.
One of London’s more recent additions to the Fringe community, the London Theatre Workshop lies above the Eel Brook Pub, and is quite frankly, a very welcome addition with its clean intimate seating, fresh lick of paint and excellent natural acoustics!
Director Jody Tranter has done a fantastic job in recreating this epic musical in such a small, cozy space. The sheer brute force of the entire ensemble is breathtaking at times (especially when combined with the powerful choreography by Adam Scown), even though in solo numbers they do compete (and occasionally lose) with the small band of five, under expert guidance of musical director Erika Gundesen.
As Leo Frank, Ross Barnes creates a suitably awkward, out of place character ideal for the role, though occasionally his outbursts are a little too strident for the space. Lily de-la-Haye contrasts suitably as his suffering yet supportive wife, Lucille. Their reconciliation duet “All the Wasted Time” was a highlight – passionate and so extremely well sung, that when Leo is about to meet his death, one feels nothing but devastating sadness that their relationship will go no further.
Other standout performances are Norton James (thoroughly convincing as the sly Hugh Dorsey), Brandon Force (who revels in right-wing hate euphoria as Tom Watson) and Michael Moulton (playing every “Nigra” character with suitable charm, pity, or revulsion and with a kickass voice to match).
The doubling and tripling of characters is a necessary evil in most of the Fringe shows, especially in musicals reduced to fit smaller venues, and it does get rather confusing as to whom is playing what – particularly if an actor is playing both a good and bad character in quick succession. Unfortunately, this does happen here, but it is a minor quibble. There are some awkward blackout scene changes (with no music to cover them unfortunately) and I felt that sometimes the action was a little too close to the audience at times, but these too are minor quibbles – they certainly do not detract from the passionate performances, nor the overarching plot.
The set design by Harry Johnson and Justin Williams is cleverly functional in addition to being very impressive with treated wood and set dressings to match the American South. This is matched with a smart lighting design by Jordan Lightfoot.
In his director’s note, Tranter wishes that we leave with the “same sense of outrage and sadness” that he discovered whilst researching this “miscarriage of justice”. Mission achieved, but the truly devastating thing is that these outrageous “miscarriages of justice” keep happening over and over again and we never learn from them.
Reviewed by Richard Kindermann
Photo: Cameron Slater Photographer
Parade is playing at the London Theatre Workshop until 13 September 2015