In 1913, Mary Phagan, a thirteen year-old girl was found strangled in the cellar of a pencil-factory in Georgia. The superintendent of the factory, Jewish Brooklyn-bred Leo Frank, was indicted for the murder, and the case that followed was seen as catalyst for not only the founding of the Anti-Defamation League, but also for the revival of the Klu Klux Klan. It’s a very heavy subject-matter for a composer as light as Jason Robert Brown (Songs For a New World; The Last Five Years; and 2014 Tony nominee The Bridges of Madison County), and yet, it’s Brown’s graceful sleight of hand that allows Parade to bring out many of the powerful tensions, as well as ventriloquize the strong and varied personalities, of this famous court case.
The score is pretty decent, with a few really memorable numbers, and this production by No Scripts on the Night, doesn’t fail to do justice to it. Although, there were a few teething problems with the microphones, which led to the band sometimes drowning out lyrics and sometimes even dialogue, most of the cast were able to step up their game. Very impressive performances come from Niamh Furey and Alex Wickens, playing Lucille and Leo Frank, and from Nathan Ellis, whose performances as the Young Confederate Soldier and as Frankie Epps, the beau of Mary Phagan, are sensitively and stirringly delivered. Among the players with less hefty parts, there were a couple almost stole the show – namely Tam Guobadia as Jim Conley and Olivia Bracken as Mrs Phagan – while other cast members failed to shine during their solos or, worse still, tried to upstage others, contributing to the overall detriment of the performance. However, more subtle efforts didn’t go unnoticed: Emefa Aguwa, in her choral roles, maintained the same commitment and quiet intensity that she gave to her named parts.
Some interesting decisions were made in choreography, but, in what is a very technically ambitious performance, staging (particularly in the first act) could be very static and uncomfortable. It seemed as if the company and crew were trying to keep abreast with the many technical steps and changes within the piece to try anything provocative with the space. As a result, some aspects of character (particularly in this large, multi-roling cast) and of plot became lost, and scenes underdeveloped. While first-night jitters might have been the source, the entirety of the blame can’t lie entirely with the cast (particularly taking into account the mic difficulties). The significance of the transition of the Young Confederate Soldier into his older self (Tom Pease) in ‘The Old Red Hills of Home’ might have been lost upon most of the audience, not because of these two strong actors, but because it simply wasn’t clear within any of the other stage indicators.
Parade is strongest when it’s interrogating the social, racial, cultural values at play within the Leo Frank case. (Otherwise, it surrenders to schmaltz.) If the company not to bring out the full potential of this musical, they need to raise the stakes beyond the first act. Giving this production three stars, I don’t mean to rain on its parade (Oxford star-inflation is a dangerous thing) but to give it a stamp of approval but ask it to try a little harder to achieve its full potential.
Parade is on at the Keble O’Reilly from Wednesday to Saturday of 6th week.