Think of America’s Deep South in the early 20th century and the struggle for race equality often springs to mind.
Alongside black rights, however, there was a lesser known, but equally abhorrent discrimination at work – anti-Semitism.
Jason Robert Brown’s Parade looks at the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager, accused of the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl who works in his factory. Desperate for a culprit, any culprit, the townsfolk, whipped up by the media and deep-seated tensions, are keen to convict and, having ‘hanged enough Negros’, the chance to hang a Jew seems a more populist option.
Jason Robert Brown’s Parade received its UK debut at the Donmar in 2007 but now receives a major revival at Southwark Playhouse’s Vault auditorium.
Director Thom Southerland has staged the piece in traverse in the vaulted auditorium on a bare wood stage bookended by two balustraded platforms. The approach allows the numerous scenes and locales to flow fluidly, though, in similar vein to the current Menier Chocolate Factory production of Road Show, it is reminiscent of watching a tennis match at times.
What Southerland’s production does achieve is a sublime mix of epic scale and intimacy. Robert Brown’s score combines soaring choral number that evoke traditional Deep South anthems, which segue in a tight-focused duet or solo. This simple staging allows such transitions to come to the fore and focuses attention on the characters.
Robert Brown’s lush, rich score has never sounded better, performed by a cast that often double roles but never at the expense of vocal performance.
Alistair Brookshaw’s Leo centres the piece with a beautifully detailed performance – full of nervous tension and incredulity over the events that overtake him. Laura Pitt-Pulford as his wife, Lucille, sings beautifully, full of passion and raw emotion. There’s also strong performances from David Haydn as the State Governor slowly realising a miscarriage of justice has occurred, Samuel J Weir as a young soldier who bookends the show with the moving anthem Old Blue Hills of Home, and Jessica Bastick-Vines as the young victim, Mary Phagan.Michael Bradley extracts a rich sound from his six-piece band, though in this early preview there were a couple of moments when the orchestrations swamped the vocals.
Howard Hudson’s evocative Southern sunset-inspired lighting and John Risebero’s simple yet effective set provide an atmospheric backdrop to the piece that draws the audience into this dark, yet moving examination of love, fear and tension in 1913 Atlanta.
There are echoes of Miller’s Crucible and Kander and Ebb’s Chicago here, a mix of children being led into false testimony fuelled by the burgeoning media desire for sensationalism and ‘celebrity’; however, Alfred Uhry’s book and Robert Brown’s score and lyrics are no copycat creation, providing their own dark and moving look at lives torn apart by discrimination and fear.
There are sections in this early preview that still need some attention. Some work on the aforementioned sound balance, the need for clearer diction in a couple of passages and some thought to the current anti-climatic dénouement will reap wonders and tighten up what is already a strong production.
Jason Robert Brown is growing in reputation as one of America’s most promising musical theatre composers and Parade is possibly his strongest score so far. In Southwark Playhouse’s production it has never been delivered with such emotional intensity, performed by a small cast at the top of their game.
The Playhouse may currently be battling Network Rail for its long term future but, if the planning officers need any proof of the quality of the venue’s work, they would be hard pushed to find a stronger demonstration than Parade.
Normal caveat applies – this is a review of the 3rd preview performance and so elements may change.
Photo: Alistair Brookshaw and Laura Pitt-Pulford in Parade at Southwark Playhouse. Picture by Annabel Vere