Parade continues at the Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester until 5 June.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Dubbed ‘the ultimate feel-bad musical’ when it opened on Broadway to mixed reviews in 1998, this unflinching depiction of injustice and intolerance in America’s Deep South in the early 20th century has gained a growing reputation over the last few years.
A well-received revival at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007 has added to its reputation on this side of the Atlantic, where European audiences are slightly more open to picking over the more unsavoury aspects of their past. Even now, its subject matter is still a tough sell and an uncomfortable watch, depicting the very real miscarriage of justice that led to Jewish, Brooklyn-born factory manager Leo Frank being convicted of the rape and murder of a 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan.
But Alfred Uhry’s book is as much about the battered and bruised Confederate cities of the south, still reeling from the defeat at the hands of the Union soldiers half a century earlier, as it is the details of Frank’s incarceration. And it is in bringing to life the living, breathing, seething community of Marietta, Georgia, where director James Baker’s production really excels.
This 150-seater theatre, created six months ago within a former Ancoats cotton mill, isn’t the most generous of performing spaces, but a 15-strong cast – appearing far larger at times – is cleverly deployed to fill every nook and cranny without ever cluttering up the stage, evocatively lit by Aaron J Dootson and dressed simply but effectively by Victoria Hinton.
Jason Robert Brown’s songs aim to hit the super, soaraway heights of a Les Misérables. The opening ‘The Old Red Hills of Home’, which nimbly recaps the whole of the American Civil War in a just a few minutes and includes a standout vocal from Aidan Banyard as the young solder, comes closest to matching Boublil and Schönberg’s masterwork.
But it is the looser, blues and Dixieland jazz-infused numbers that live longest in the memory, the highlight being Act II opener ‘Rumblin’ and a Rollin’’, performed in rollicking fashion by Matt Mills and Shekinah McFarlane as the domestic staff.
As events progress, focus shifts to a portrait of a difficult marriage, as Frank’s wife Lucille (impressively played by Laura Harrison) stands by her demonised husband while fighting to clear his name. Frank and Lucille’s prison yard picnic, accompanied by the movingly plaintive ‘All the Wasted Time’, provides a brief, sweet rest-bite from the darkness before it plunges you into its inevitably unsettling denouement.
In a very strong ensemble, Tom Lloyd treads a tricky path with aplomb, portraying Leo as a spiky, sometimes unlikeable protagonist who, none the less, commands your sympathy once the lynch mob closes in.