Parade, Donmar Warehouse, London

Daring and ambitious musical vindicated
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Nobody dared to rain on Barbra Streisand's parade. But The New York Times managed to direct a fatal downpour on to Jason Robert Brown's Parade. This musical, with a book by Alfred (Driving Miss Daisy) Uhry and music and lyrics by Brown, opened at the Lincoln Centre in 1998, garnered some very positive reviews and went on to win two Tony Awards for best score and book. But the thumbs down from the "Grey Lady" meant that it survived for only 84 performances.

Now, the Donmar Warehouse once again vibrantly vindicates an American musical cold-shouldered by its homeland in this immensely impressive production, directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford. It establishes Parade as an admirably ambitious, musically daring piece that deserves praise for attempting to intertwine the political and the personal, even if in that respect it's uneven as a piece of music drama.

Set in the southern state of Georgia, the show is inspired by the real-life case of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn Jewish Northerner, who was framed for the assault and murder of a 13-year-old labourer, Mary Phagan, at the pencil factory where he was superintendent on Confederate Memorial Day, 1913. As recounted by this musical, the story embraces electoral expediency (a conviction needs to be gained even if it involves suborning a black man to testify against the next to the bottom of the heap, a Jew) and the love that awkwardly but ardently evolves in the previously strained relationship between Frank and his wife (the vocally elastic Bertie Carvel and clarion-lunged Lara Pulver) as a result of her fighting to have his sentence commuted. It ends in tragedy with the semi-absolved Leo dragged from his cell and lynched by the ravening mob in 1915.

For me, the best bits of the show are the scenes where public and private collide dangerously. I strongly suspect that Jason Robert Brown is a fan of the great American composer, Charles Ives, who was nearing his peak at the time of this affair, albeit in Massachusetts rather than the South. At its finest, the score has a similar volatile, democratic impulse to send incongruent musical styles (military marches, hymns, dances, popular songs) swarming against one another in a rich, riddling mix.

And this urge brings out the best in Ashford, the choreographer. One thinks of the jubilant cake-walk that rudely thrusts into the proceedings after the conviction, with Leo hoisted in a chair like an ironic victor or the revivalist energy that launches the lynch mob.

There are some great voices in this show, most notably Shaun Escoffery who is sensational as the black perjuring janitor who ends up on a chain gang. To my taste, the private relationship between Leo and Lucille is under-written and sometimes sounds like a sub-Sondheim Sunday in the Prison with Leo, but the beautifully lit and designed production handles the trial and its ramifications with focus and finesse.

Comments