2013 – Parade

Photographs courtesy of Timothy Winn

NODA review by Julie Petrucci

Once again The Festival Players took a chance on a modern little-known musical for a ten-day run at the ADC. Set during the Memorial Day Parade (hence the title) in Atlanta in 1914, Robert Brown’s musical, based on a true story, is a strange subject-matter in my opinion. It is the story of the injustice done to Leo Frank who was falsely accused of the murder of a young girl. This happened 100 years ago in Georgia, a place where prejudice, political dishonesty and vigilantism ruled.

Frank becomes the classic scapegoat. He has actually committed the triple sin of being an outsider, a Jew and perhaps most heinously, a Yankee New Yorker. Shy, hard working and upright, Frank is clearly innocent but his frame up for the murder becomes a necessary expedient for the ambitious D.A. Dorsey. What follows is the total injustice of his arrest and sham court trial, his subsequent imprisonment and sentence of death.

While the whole city rapidly turns against him, he is supported by his devoted wife Lucille who campaigns to have him set free. Whilst the Franks hold on to hope of a retrial, events overtake her efforts and the show moves rapidly to its shocking conclusion.

Essential to the success of this show has to be the two central performancers. Steve Nicholson as the fragile bespectacled Leo Frank gave a stellar performance, and one which could not be bettered in my opinion. He created a totally believable character one which we all warmed to as we got to know him. He showed how versatile he is when in the trial scene he put doubts in our minds when in one song he appeared to come over as a womanising murderer.

Amy Castledine as his wife Lucille matched Nicholson’s performance, again creating a very believable character which grew stronger as she fought to bring justice to her imprisoned husband. She has a superb voice and was pitch-perfect. There was a lovely tender scene between the two in the prison when they thought victory was in sight but, as it turned out, it was their final goodbye.

Alan Hay as Governor John Slaton and Jonathan Padley as Hugh Dorsey both gave incredibly strong performances. I also much enjoyed Cat Nicol’s emotive performance as Mrs Phagan young Mary’s mother; Mark McCormack as Mary’s would-be boyfriend Frankie Epps and Jamie Maguire as the menacing Jim Conley.

The Ensemble players must be congratulated on their total involvement and concentration throughout. Modern musicals are not content with just having good singers there is also a requirement these days for those singers to act and act well. The involvement of the ensemble in this show is paramount and whilst there was not too much call for fancy footwork Choreographer Kirsty Smith provided some well judged and interesting movement around the stage which was smoothly executed. The court scene was excellent and there were some wonderful stage freezes which had to be held for minutes at a time and this was done with great skill. The off-stage backing singing, the rhythmic clapping for the chain gang and the ‘Confederate’ drumming was superb adding much to the whole.

I am not up on costumes in the early 1900s in the American Deep South but they all looked good to me and as they were under the auspices of the talented Liz Milway and her team I am sure they were absolutely authentic. Add to this the most excellent work of the musicians under the directorship of Brian ‘Tommy’ Thomas, and the skillful lighting design of Ed Hopkins you can tell there was little to criticise technically or otherwise with this production.

This is not an all singing all dancing show by any means, it is a dark disturbing piece. Director Suzanne Emerson had just the right touch though, keeping up the pace throughout and building the tension well. By the end of act one the audience were already gripped and the tension built even higher throughout act two to the dreadful climatic scene as Frank fell into the hands of the ‘Knights of Mary Phagan’.

Just before the curtain call photographs of the actors and their real life counterparts were flashed up which was a reminder that this is a true story about injustice and bigotry. All singing and all dancing it may not have been, but it was certainly powerful, gripping and thought provoking. Congratulations to all involved with this stunning evening of theatre: one which will be a talking point for a long time to come.

Musical theatre that packs a punch: Local Secrets review by Mike Levy

A musical about a lynching doesn’t sound like fun. To be fair Jason Robert Brown’s ‘Parade’ does not set out to entertain as much as make us think. It is a dark, disturbing and downright dystopian piece that uses the musical theatre form to pack a punch (albeit a few that fail to land on the chin).

Set amid the Memorial Day Parade in Atlanta in 1914, its subject is the true story of Leo Frank falsely accused of the vile murder of a young girl. This happened 100 years ago in Georgia, a place of prejudice, political chicanery and mob rule. Frank has actually committed the triple sin of being an outsider, a Jew and perhaps most heinously, a Yankee New Yorker. Shy, hard working and upright, Frank is clearly innocent but his frame up for the murder becomes a necessary expedient for the ambitious D.A. Dorsey.

What follows is the imprisonment and sham court trial of the classic scapegoat, his subsequent imprisonment and sentence of death. While the whole city rapidly turns against him, he is supported by his devoted wife Lucille who campaigns to have him set free. Events, however, overtake her efforts and the show moves rapidly to its shocking conclusion.

Hats off to Festival Players for bringing this important work to our attention. The first-night audience at the ADC Theatre in Cambridgey gave the large amateur cast thunderous appreciation and rightly so – this highly complex work was done with great gusto, commitment and layers of talent. Brown’s score is multi-layered and tremendously ambitious drawing on a wide variety of styles – ragtime, blues, gospel, music hall and his own distinctive voice with its complex web of cross rhythms, clashing ensembles, sweet love songs and the ominous drum beat of sinister doings.

Central to the success of this show were the two central performances by Steve Nicholson as the fragile bespectacled Leo and Amy Castledine as his ever-stronger wife. The two lit up the stage whenever they were on: Nicholson pitch perfect as the nervy, agitated condemned man; Castledine hitting all the right notes both musically and in creating a believable flesh and blood character. Jonathan Padley also hit the right balance of smooth operator and sinister shyster as Dorsey and Alice Boagey played the 14 year-old victim with a laudable sense of innocence and flirty adolescence. There were star performances also from Jamie Maguire as the sleazy ex-con who points the finger and Trenetta Jones, as the Frank’s black maid who turns against them – her big number in Act Two was worth the ticket price alone.

This is a show that is virtually sung through, more Carmen than Oklahoma, and the direction under Suzanne Emerson cantered along at a breathless pace giving ‘Parade’ the necessary energy and conviction to sustain and grip the audience for well over two hours. Choreography (including some wonderful stage freezes) was always well judged and fluently executed (though there was a slightly baffling scene in the opening of the second half involving half masks).

Oddly enough, the weakest part of the piece is the book by Alfred Uhry; for such a strong theme there is little exploration of the prejudice that lay behind Frank’s trial. But that aside, this is a wonderful opportunity to see a show by one of the great hopes of contemporary musical theatre. There may not be much fun here but you will be gripped.

 

Varsity review by Alex Findley

I don’t know much about musicals. But I had in mind bloomers and line dancing rather than this dark epic by Jason Robert- Brown, and performed by the Festival Players. Parade follows the true story of the trial of a Jewish factory superintendent, Leo Frank, accused of the horrific murder of a young child and focusses on Leo and his wife Lucille’s attempts to keep it together in a town riven with north- south tensions and anti-Semitism as the local papers whip up the crowds. Given the long look it takes at social prejudice and injustice, it isn’t surprising that the show is often taught in American Schools, along with other showcase “ southern courthouse” stories like To Kill a Mockingbird and Inherit the Wind. Kids love musicals, but I don’t. And I’m not sure what the harrowing story of the strangulation of a young child gains from the addition of “pop-rock, folk, R&B and gospel style” music. A lot of the songs, though technically superb, are really jaunty and sit at odds with the gutsy content. There are more catchy choruses than actual content to the songs and this felt like a patronising, childish and quite tasteless writing.

In keeping with all the dirt-digging that goes on in the play, and because my wife had left me there alone, I hung around the smoking area in the interval to gauge reactions, and these were all very positive. Gareth Mullin was described as “scintillating and sweaty,” with the director being commended for “ great pacing and choreography” and Alan Smith for his “fantastic accent and presence”.

We agreed that the show began well with a solo Ismael Romero-Clark, who managed to convey vocal power even singing quite quietly. I should add that the ensemble was consistently well harmonized, well-choreographed and stirring. Steve Nicholson as Leo was a superb, versatile actor and a good singer, capable of playing the quiet and awkward Frank and, in a cracking and stuttering voice, producing moments of real pathos and drama. Amy Castledine as Lucille was equally as good a singer and actor and managed to really garner my sympathy. The pair carried off an intimate love scene before the end with a homely charm. I also really liked the sly malice of Jaime Maguire as Jim Conley, one of Leo’s co-defendants, and the director’s decision to portray him as white. Though the script could have made more of the counter racism deployed by Frank in the real trial. There were problems, though, in the first half and again at the end with the music being louder than the singers’ voices, which was a pity because beside from being unable to hear the lyrics, it was also difficult to hear the great singing. Equally Oliver Fisher could have sung louder as Tom Watson, one of the principle anti-Semitic antagonists, because the “ swing that hammer” song was pretty weak. The next time these guys do something at the ADC I will definitely go and see it, but think hard about what you want to watch before you go to Parade, it’s quite a mouthful.