A child murder trial, a lynching, and cakewalking anti-Semites are the unlikely ingredients of the musical “Parade,” playing under a Victorian railway arch near London Bridge.
The 1998 show, with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and a book by Alfred Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy”), tells the real-life story of Jewish businessman Leo Frank. In 1913, amid a wave of anti-Jewish hysteria, he was found guilty of murdering a girl in the U.S. state of Georgia. After his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, he was lynched in 1915 by a mob of blood-hungry southerners.
Frank was granted a pardon in 1986.
The play is staged in Southwark Playhouse, a small theater with big ambitions, converted from a railway arch. The tunnel- shaped space, with traverse seating, ensures a suitable atmosphere of intensity and claustrophobia.
Thom Southerland’s period-costume production is a cracking piece of work with a lean aesthetic. A few tables and a bench represent a courthouse. A single flag and a rousing anthem conjure up all the tub-thumping energy of a Confederate Memorial Day parade. Scenes flow into each other seamlessly.
Ensemble numbers, choreographed by Tim Jackson, show prejudice and vitriol burning ever more fiercely as the action progresses. When the verdict is given, the trial spectators burst into a jubilant angry cakewalk. Cynical newspaperman Britt Craig (David Haydn) whips his readers into a whirling frenzy with his yellow prose.
Alastair Brookshaw holds it all together as the northerner Leo Frank. He begins the show as an over-fastidious outsider. His movements are brittle, his manner self-protective, his relationship with his wife Lucille strained.
As Frank’s agony increases, so does his love for the brave and loyal Lucille (a powerful performance from Laura Pitt- Pulford). Their reconciliatory duet “This Is Not Over Yet” provides the emotional core of the show.
It’s a shame that that core takes a bit too long to reveal itself. Act 1 is mainly taken up with the trial, which is shown to be riddled with corruption.
There’s no doubting whose side the writers are on, and while that’s great for polemic, it’s less great for drama. Frank’s defense isn’t represented at all during the trial, suggesting that book writer Uhry wants to squeeze the maximum possible martyrdom, rather than interesting complexity, out of his character.
Musically, too, the default mode is earnestness. Sometimes it works. A tender funeral hymn is undercut with dissonant chords to indicate simmering violence. A chain-gang blues, sung by black convict Jim Conley (Terry Doe, superb), is full of passion and anger. Musical Director Michael Bradley and a seven- piece band keep things dramatic and taut.
All those heart-on-sleeve outpourings still make you long for a surprise reaction, a flip side, a burst of inappropriate laughter -- something like the joyous cannibalistic waltz that closes Act 1 of “Sweeney Todd,” or the murderous “Cell Block Tango” in “Chicago.”
Still, it’s churlish to criticize a musical for what it’s not rather than what it is, especially when there’s plenty that’s good. And in Southerland’s tight, clear production, it marks Southwark Playhouse as a theater punching above its weight with exciting results. Rating: ***.
“Parade” is at Southwark Playhouse, London, through Sept. 17. Information: http://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk or +44-20-7407-0234.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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