Theater Reviews

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Donmar Warehouse, London
Through Nov. 24

LONDON -- Tony-winning choreographer Rob Ashford's Donmar Warehouse revival of the 1998 American musical "Parade," which is based on the notorious 1913 murder trial of Leo Frank, is an enthralling testament to the wisdom of revisiting strong material with a fresh vision.

The show, originally co-conceived by Harold Prince, won Tony Awards for its book by Alfred Uhry ("Driving Miss Daisy," "The Last Night of Ballyhoo") and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown ("Urban Cowboy," "The Last Five Years"). But it had just 85 performances at the Lincoln Theater Center's Vivian Baumont Theatre and received lukewarm reviews.

The story of Frank, a Jewish bookkeeper from Brooklyn who was convicted of murdering Atlanta girl Mary Phagan and subsequently lynched, became a national scandal just before World War I. It spawned a great many books and was the basis of a highly regarded 1937 feature film titled "They Won't Forget" directed by Mervyn LeRoy. A miniseries, "The Murder of Mary Phagan," starring Jack Lemmon, Richard Jordan, Robert Prosky, Charles S. Dutton and Kevin Spacey, was a hit on NBC in 1988.

The musical, named for events taking place on Georgia's celebration of Confederate Memorial Day, was criticized for its loaded emphasis on the martyrdom of an innocent man hanged by bigots without providing the necessary context, and for the muted attention it paid to the love story of Frank and his wife Lucille.

In directing the revival, Ashford (who was assistant choreographer on the original New York production) has done much to better illustrate time and place. He uses Brown's excellent songs to portray a volatile Deep South era that mixed Civil War regret with unresolved racism and the influx of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia.

While the tragedy and horror of Frank's fate are fully rendered, Ashford's staging also puts the marriage of Leo and Lucille at center stage allowing Bertie Carvel and Lara Pulver to balance the story's grim elements with the soaring optimism of genuine love and devotion.

The basic facts of the case were simple. New Yorker Frank had moved unhappily to Atlanta to take a job at his southern Jewish wife's uncle's factory where he fussed over every dime. When young Mary Phagan went to pick up her pitiful paycheck, he was the last to see her before she was found murdered.

Astonishingly for that time and place, a black witness named Jim Conley (Shaun Escoffery) was believed when he accused Frank of the girl's murder. Ambitious local politicians and ruthless newspapermen conspired to ramp up emotions with the evil rationalization that it would make a change to hang a Jew rather than a black man.

With a rich variety of musical influences including ragtime, gospel, folk, and blues, Brown's songs illuminate all the raging emotional and political currents of the period and his lyrics rank with Stephen Sondheim's. The acting and singing are splendid and Ashford's choreography makes great use of the small Donmar stage. Carvel shrewdly makes Frank appear cold and distant until late in the play and Pulver is heartbreaking as Lucille. Escoffery delivers a sly and powerful chain-gang blues song and Stuart Matthew Price makes Mary's jealous boyfriend seem both innocent and sinister.

The aftermath of the Leo Frank case saw the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan and the founding of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. In 1986, the state of Georgia pardoned Frank on the grounds that the state had failed to protect him. Society's tendency to rush to judgment and the media's willingness to fan the flames remain, however, and the final scenes of "Parade" are all the more powerful for being still so sadly topical.

PARADE
Donmar Warehouse
Credits:
Book: Alfred Uhry
Music & lyrics: Jason Robert Brown
Co-conceived by: Harold Prince
Director: Rob Ashford
Choreographer: Rob Ashford
Designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting designer: Neil Austen
Musical director: Thomas Murray
Sound designers: Terry Jardine and Nick Lidster for Autograph
Orchestrator: David Cullen
Cast:
Young soldier, Frankie Epps, Guard: Stuart Matthew Price
Old soldier, Judge Roan, Guard: Steven Page
Lucille Frank: Lara Pulver
Leo Frank: Bertie Carvel
Gov. Slaton, Britt Craig, Mr. Peavy: Gary Milner
Lila & Mary Phagan: Jayne Wisener
Officer Starnes, Tom Watson: Norman Bowman
Minnie McKnight, Angela: Malinda Parris
Officer Ivey, Luther Rosser, Guard: Stephen Webb
Newt Lee, Jim Conley, Riley: Shaun Escoffery
Mrs. Phagan, Sally Slaton: Helen Anker
Hugh Dorsey: Mark Bonnar
Iola Stover: Joanna Kirkland
Monteen: Zoe Rainey
Essie: Celia Mei Rubin
Piano & percussion: Thomas Murray
Violin: Shelley Van Loen
Viola: Lesley Wynne
Cello: Ben Trigg
Bass: Stephen Warner
Clarinets: Steve Pierce
Horn: James Palmer
Percussion & drums: Neil Rowland
Accordion & piano: Ian Watson
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