Reviving a musical which enjoyed a successful run at the Donmar Warehouse just four years ago is a courageous move, but this powerful production of Parade makes you thankful Southwark Playhouse took the plunge. An impassioned version of celebrated lyricist and composer Jason Robert Brown’s work, it tackles a deeply distressing topic with a deftness of touch, turning a tragic historical event into a strangely uplifting experience.
The subject matter is almost as dark as the venue: the atmospheric tunnels beneath London Bridge Station, which are used to great effect to evoke the sense of incarceration in the play. Set in Atlanta, Georgia in 1913, Parade tells the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman from Brooklyn who reluctantly resides in the South to run a pencil company. The factory he supervises employs several local young girls, including 13 year-old Mary Phagan. After Mary is found dead in the factory, Leo is accused by of her murder by a corrupt and anti-Semitic judicial system, and a witch-hunt ensues. The only person to consistently stand behind Leo is his doting wife Lucille, whose fearlessness in defending her husband becomes central to the tale.
As a drama, Parade takes some time to get going, and the first act seems more of a prelude. Yet the slow start adds to the sense of a storm slowly brewing, which begins to break in the second act. What began as a political drama slowly morphs into a heart-wrenching love story, and a story about individuals and their regrets, culminating with the song ‘All the Wasted Time’, the most affecting of all Brown’s numbers. Indeed, all the musical highlights are in the second act, including the jovial ‘Pretty Music’ and Lucille’s assertive ‘Do It Alone’. The choreography, at times wild and tempestuous, also adds to the sense of impending doom, and its tumultuous nature is often genuinely frightening.
The cast of fifteen are almost without fault, managing to find the perfect balance between the somberness of the tale and the spirit of the musical. Their mellifluous tones are only inhibited by the sound being amped-up a little too high, making it hard to discern the lyrics at times. Alistair Brookshaw provides an exemplary performance as Leo, which becomes more visceral as the narrative progresses, although he does somewhat overdo the neurotic Jewish-ness in the first act. However, the real star of the show is Laura Pitt-Pulford, who is nothing short of tremendous as Lucille. She handles the character’s transformation from confined housewife to redeemed lover with admirable poise, as she slowly asserts herself over the performance. Her tragic turns are made all the more touching by her spectacular voice, which is responsible for the success of the play’s most effective numbers.
If there are any criticisms to be made, it is in the politics of the play, which paints the South as a little too universally demonic, and sometimes brushed aside the plight of the black characters all too rapidly. However, shades of grey do not really translate well into a musical, and the production would have been severely diluted had it been forced to focus on several dimensions. The intricacies of Leo’s trail itself are handled admirably, at times calling to mind Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and as the locals begin to gang up on Leo and fabricate evidence to indict him, associations with “I saw Goody Proctor with the devil” are hard to ignore.
Although not by any means lighthearted, the production manages to avoid being entirely lugubrious. The harrowing dénouement does not dampen the sense of love and hope prevailing, and although justice does not quite triumph, there is an overarching feeling of principles being preserved. There is something oddly reassuring about Leo uttering the Sh’ma, the most fundamental Jewish prayer, in the final solo song of the evening, a scene which stays with you long after emerging from the underground setting. The nuances of the script are brought to the fore by director Thom Southerland’s seamless navigation between the overarching political themes and the play’s more intimate moments, ultimately providing a show which rivals the most successful of West End musicals.
Parade is playing at the Southwark Playhouse in The Vault until until 17th September. For more information see the Southwark Playhouse website here.