Parade continues at the London Theatre Workshop until 13 September.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Some of the most exciting theatre takes place on the London Fringe – and certainly the best value – so why even think of paying vast sums for some of the tat that gets into the West End when you can feast on superb new work like The Clockmaker’s Daughter or a powerful revival of the rarely-performed Parade and get change from a £20 note?
A pared-down, multi-role-playing cast of 13 at the bijou London Theatre Workshop (above the Eel Brook hostelry in the New Kings Road) perform this long, harrowing but massively rewarding Jason Robert Brown musical with love, passion and flair.
Such is its power that a woman behind was sobbing uncontrollably at the end. The show gets you like that and it is extraordinary what can be achieved in such a small space when you have the vision of a director like Jody Tranter (definitely not a woman as one reviewer wrote!) and the vitality and enthusiasm of a young cast, some not long out of drama school.
Last seen professionally in London at Southwark Playhouse four years ago, Parade ran for only 84 performances when it opened on Broadway in 1998, a piece of shocking American history that New Yorkers didn’t want to be reminded of but so stunningly realised that it garnered tremendous critical acclaim, including a Tony, for its young composer.
Brown had been brought in after Stephen Sondheim, whose Assassins had proved an equally unpalatable history lesson for American audiences four years earlier, had turned down the job of translating Alfred Uhry’s grim book into a musical.
Uhry, who was born in Atlanta and whose great uncle owned the pencil factory where the killing took place, tells of the trial and lynching 100 years ago of a Brooklyn Jew, a social misfit who, due to his faith, feels out of place in the Deep South where his work has taken him.
When a 13-year-old employee at the factory managed by the unsympathetic Leo Frank is raped and murdered, he rather than the probable killer, a janitor at the factory, is targeted purely because the enormity of the crime – and the media hysteria it creates – demands something more newsworthy than the hanging of yet another black man.
The death sentence is commuted to life when janitor and townsfolk, under pressure from corrupt lawmen, are found to have falsified evidence, but just when it looks as if Leo, in adversity discovering what true love really is, might resume a normal life with the stoic Lucille, in step the vigilantes to take the law into their own hands.
The London Theatre Workshop has given us some unexpected musical delights in its short life, not least Ordinary Days, A Catered Affair and Apartment 40C (the first creation of LTW’s co-directors Ray Rackham and Tom Lees) but Parade takes it a stage further in terms of ambition and achievement.
Choreographer Adam Scown works a near-miracle with the crowded ensemble numbers like the powerful ‘Where Will You Stand When the Flood Comes?’, costume designer Millie Hobday instantly creates a feel for the Confederate South, dialect coach Terry Besson has got them talking off the same hymn sheet, and the five-strong band, led by Erika Gundesen and with the work of drummer Tom Chester particularly striking, demonstrates a genuine feel for the composer’s gorgeous music.
Mountview graduate Lily de-la-Haye is outstanding, both as actress and singer, among the cast as the long-suffering wife Lucille and Ross Barnes superbly captures the swing of Leo’s character, from someone we dislike to begin with to the wronged victim we suffer with at the end.
This is a dazzling team effort. Some sing better than others, but Michael Moulton lights up the stage as the shifty janitor – ‘That’s What He Said’ a particular joy – while older hands Samuel Clifford and Dudley Rogers show the value of experience.
PPA graduate Kerry Loosemore, in her professional debut, very much catches the eye as Mary Phagan, the cheeky teenage victim, dance captain Nazarene Williams is a wonderful mover, while American actor Brandon Force and Norton James are villainously good – and being so close to the action enables unamplified voices to be heard with clarity.
You are more likely to come out dabbing your eyes than humming the songs and don’t go if you need cheering up because this is serious stuff that leaves its mark in a brave, magnificent piece of theatre that is well worth your attention.