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A CurtainUp London London Review

For the life of me I cannot understand why God created you Jewish and Southern at the same time.— Leo
Zoe Rainey as Monteen
(Photo: Johan Persson)

Parade the Harold Prince musical which tells the 1913 story of Leo Frank (Bertie Carvel) who was accused of murdering 13 year old Mary Phagan (Jane Wisener) has taken nine years to reach the UK. It receives an intimate staging in the Donmar Warehouse.

In some ways the production is so economical in its setting that it almost seems to be a concert performance but the innovative choreography lifts the production to another plane. Unlike in America, the story of Leo Frank is not a cause celebre in the UK, and there may be some uphill work in expecting the British to understand the background to North-South rivalry and anti-Semitic feeling.

The historical setting is just half a century after the American Civil War when Southern pride was still smarting from the Yankee defeat. This context is illustrated in the opening prologue with "The Old Red Hills of Home" where a young Confederate soldier in grey uniform becomes a grizzled old man and a Southern Belle in a crinoline becomes the child factory worker, Mary Phagan. You could do no better than read my editor, Elyse Sommer's backgrounder to the musical and the puzzling and shocking case of Leo Frank when she reviewed the musical on its first outing on Broadway. (review)

I found the lyrics clearly explain the narrative and as Rob Ashcroft both choreographs and directs, he is able to use dance to express the media frenzy at the little girl's funeral. At the trial too, the jazz age choreography of the number "Why Don't You Come Up To My Office" was at once fun and incongruous as the factory girls give evidence about Frank's alleged sexual invitations. I was reminded of The Crucible as the young girls describe Leo's sexual advances but manage to look as if they are lying. At the trial verdict, mayhem breaks out but Leo and Lucille Frank are held aloft on chairs, she distraught, he impassive, distanced and exposed by the cakewalk celebration of the majority. In the "Where Will You Stand When the Flood Comes?" the choreographer has the cast with hands clasped, thrusting out their arms in jerky movements to express their anger and militancy.

The music is very accessible and enjoyable and has something to please everyone. There are elements of blue grass, blues, pretty ballads, a sprightly march, nods to Sondheim and lots of rhythmic jazz. The exuberant Southern dance numbers contrast with the soulful songs of Leo and Lucille Frank and I'm close to looking to buy a copy of the CD, something I haven't done in four years since Jerry Springer the Opera!

A simple wooden balcony above the set gives a sense of Leo Frank's physical position as superintendent working above the pencil factory workers and the opportunity for the judge to look down on the trial and of course for politicians to make rabble rousing speeches. The costumes are perfectly in period as are the women's hairstyles and these small touches give the show a thoroughly professional and expensive feel. The dance scene in the Governor's Mansion is very pretty with dresses designed with accurate 1915 fashion detailing which swirl brilliantly as the girls are twirled around.

Bertie Carvel conveys the right of ambiguity with the shaking and nervousness with which he responds to the police investigation. He convinces as a man who's not immediately likeable — a stuffy man who, rather than go on a picnic with his wife, chooses to go into the factory on what is a Memorial Day holiday to commemorate the bravery of the Southern forces in the Civil War. This action alone seems out of sympathy with the South.

Lara Pulver is sincere and dependable as Lucille, Leo Frank's loving wife despite Leo's reticence. Her singing is beautiful in numbers such as "You Don't Know This Man.". Lucille and Frank's picnic in prison sees them able to express their love for each other after years of holding back.

The ensemble cast work hard with fine results. Marc Bonnar is all scheming politician as Hugh Dorsey and Gary Milner tries to do the right thing as Governor Slaton. There is a nine piece band in support under the direction of Thomas Murray.

This is an unusual subject for a musical but this adds to, rather than detracts from, the impact Parade has. Few people will see it and not want to know more about the case of Leo Frank and his tragic end at the hands of the people who prefer to take the law into their own hands. I was really moved by the trial scene where Mary Phagan's mother (Helen Anker) shows the jury her daughter's neatly laundered dress and her tiny boots but I also find it hard to believe that the death penalty exists in civilised countries today, because how can we be sure they will not convict the wrong person? If you type the words Leo Frank into Google Images you will see the "parade" of onlookers I cannot get out of my head.

To read Elyse Sommer's review of the show's debut at Lincoln Center, including background notes and a song list, go here.

Book by Alfred Uhry
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Co-conceived by Harold Prince
Choreographed and Directed by Rob Ashford

Starring: Bertie Carvel, Lara Pulver, Marc Bonnar, Gary Milner
With: Stuart Matthew Price, Steven Page, Jayne Wisener, Norman Bowman, Malinda Parris, Stephen Webb, Shaun Escoffery, Helen Anker, Joanna Kirkland, Zoe Rainey, Celia Mei Rubin
Design: Christopher Oram
Lighting: Neil Austin
Sound: Terry Jardine and Nick Lidster for Autograph
Musical Director: Thomas Murray
Orchestrator: David Cullen
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6624
Booking to 24th November 2007
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 28th September performance at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2 (Tube: Covent Garden)

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