Parade, Southwark Playhouse, London
A true story of justice gone wrong
Monday 22 August 2011
The New York Times rained heavily on Parade, with the result that Jason Robert Brown's 1998 musical lasted for only 84 performances on Broadway.
It was left to London's Donmar Warehouse – in the shape of a brilliant production by Rob Ashford some nine years later – to vindicate the piece as a daring and ambitious attempt to dramatise a heinous, real-life miscarriage of justice in early 20th century Georgia. Leo Frank is not the likeliest figure to take centre stage in a musical.
A transplanted Brooklyn Jew, he was framed in 1913 for the rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year- old labourer at the Atlanta pencil factory where he was superintendent and ended up lynched by a mob.
Staged in confrontation-heightening traverse fashion in the gloomy, subterranean vaults of Southwark Playhouse, Thom Southerland's compelling revival at Southwark Playhouse has the full measure of the imaginative ways in which this music drama intertwines the personal and the political. The piece is bookended by two Confederate Day Parades and the anthem "The Old Hills of Georgia". Given a spine-tingling rendition by the versatile, multi-tasking company here, that song feels at once atavistically stirring and worryingly suspect, redolent of the Southern solidarity that will make a scapegoat of outsider Frank, whose repression is conveyed, with minute detail and no false bids for sympathy, in Alastair Brookshaw's brave performance.
The blatant rabble-rousing, the careerist calculation that drives a prosecutor with a lousy conviction record (excellent Mark Inscoe) to try to up the ante by nailing a Jew rather than a "nigra", the crooked deals with key witnesses – all these are choreographed with a terrifically baleful dynamism here. But though Laura Pitt-Pulford is in ecstatic voice as Frank's wife Lucille, the way a mismatch is shown to blossom into true love in the shadow of the gallows seems a sop to convention.
The eclectic score, which ranges through blues, dixie, gospel, spirituals et al, is delivered with passion by an ace seven-piece band. At the moment, though, there's a problem of balance: in contrast to the punchy presence of the instrumental playing, the miked voices sound compressed. That you gradually learn to overlook this is a further tribute to the admirable company.
To 17 September (020 7407 0234)
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