Nearly a decade after it had its short-lived New York premiere, the two-time Tony Award-winning musical Parade received its long-awaited London premiere last night (24 September 2007, previews from 14 September) at the Donmar Warehouse, where its limited season continues until 24 November (See 1st Night Photos, 25 Sep 2007).
In Atlanta, Georgia in 1913, a Jewish man from Brooklyn stands accused of the murder of a young factory worker. Based on the true story of Leo Frank convicted of the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, Parade recalls the press frenzy and public hate surrounding the trial, and Lucille Frank’s crusade for justice for her husband.
Bertie Carvel and Lara Pulver star as husband and wife Leo and Lucille Frank, in a cast that also features Helen Anker, Gary Milner, Mark Bonnar, Norman Bowman and Shaun Escoffery. The musical has music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and a book by Alfred Uhry, co-conceived by its original director Harold Prince. The Donmar production is directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford, marking his directorial debut, and designed by Christopher Oram.
The negative judgement of the New York Times may have cut Parade’s life short on Broadway, but London’s first night critics have heartily welcomed the musical’s arrival on this side of the Atlantic. They all applauded book writer Alfred Uhry’s ability to tackle a serious subject and make it utterly “gripping”, and admired Jason Robert Brown’s “powerful” score, with inevitable, and usually favourable, comparisons drawn between Brown and his American elder, Stephen Sondheim. There was praise too for Rob Ashford’s “extremely well cast” production, in particular leads Bertie Carvel and Lara Pulver. Despite the furore over musicals taking over Theatreland, there’s not a single note of opposition to this one - Parade, say the critics, is “a musical of real substance”, a “must-see”.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “There is no question that Parade is a significant and highly charged new American musical and that choreographer Rob Ashford’s production – his first as a stand-alone director – at the Donmar is a triumph … Jason Robert Brown is one of a group of young-ish American composers who labour unavoidably in the shadow of Stephen Sondheim. In this case, there’s a lot of Sweeney Todd. But this wonderful score has other influences, too, notably that of Charles Ives, no slouch at incorporating traditional anthems into his vitally original musical. Not only does Robert Brown sing the blues very effectively, he also knows how to develop narrative with sustained underscoring and superb vocal decoration. Ashford’s production, beautifully designed and lit by Christopher Oram and Neil Austin, is extremely well cast, too, with Bertie Carvel giving a wonderfully detailed, nervy performance as Leo that makes him both a sucker for punishment and a sad victim. Lara Pulver is excellent as his wife Lucille, and there are fine contributions from Steven Page as an old soldier, Shaun Escoffery as the black janitor who perjures himself and Mark Bonnar as a corrupt prosecuting lawyer. A must-see musical.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “I wondered whether it would work even better as a docudrama? But, in the end, the music and lyrics of Jason Robert Brown serve to reinforce rather than subvert the gripping story Alfred Uhry's book has to tell ... The musical doesn't have time to set the story in context: in particular, the wave of anti-immigrant hostility that swept early 20th-century America. But Brown's music constantly underscores the key narrative points … The director, Rob Ashford, is best known as a choreographer and he shows a priceless ability to allow dance to erupt naturally from the action. He is also well served by the cast. Bertie Carvel as Frank has just enough neurotic primness and clinical detachment to suggest why his initial reaction to the crime aroused misgivings. Lara Pulver also conveys clearly the sexual frustrations of his neglected wife. And there is staunch support from Shaun Escoffery as the black felon, who has a fine second-half blues number, and from Gary Milner as the mind-changing Georgia governor. Musicals primarily deal with romance: it is refreshing to find one that deals so eloquently with the roots of Southern prejudice.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent - “The Donmar Warehouse once again vibrantly vindicates an American musical cold-shouldered by its homeland in this immensely impressive production, directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford. It establishes Parade as an admirably ambitious, musically daring piece that deserves praise for attempting to intertwine the political and the personal, even if in that respect it's uneven as a piece of music drama … For me, the best bits of the show are the scenes where public and private collide dangerously … At its finest, the score has a similar volatile, democratic impulse to send incongruent musical styles (military marches, hymns, dances, popular songs) swarming against one another in a rich, riddling mix. And this urge brings out the best in Ashford, the choreographer. One thinks of the jubilant cake-walk that rudely thrusts into the proceedings after the conviction, with Leo hoisted in a chair like an ironic victor or the revivalist energy that launches the lynch mob. There are some great voices in this show, most notably Shaun Escoffery who is sensational as the black perjuring janitor who ends up on a chain gang. To my taste, the private relationship between Leo and Lucille is under-written and sometimes sounds like a sub-Sondheim Sunday in the Prison with Leo, but the beautifully lit and designed production handles the trial and its ramifications with focus and finesse.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “I cannot remember when the narrative and plotting of a musical last kept me engaged, let alone gripped. Parade, book by Alfred Uhry, manages the feat at last. Here is that rare thing: a piece of musical theatre, deftly executed on a bare, galleried stage by director Rob Ashford, that dares to be serious … I must admit, though, that Jason Robert Brown's music, with its blues, hymns, spirituals and anthems, is indebted to Stephen Sondheim almost to the point of insolvency. It often sounds like an eloquent pastiche, particularly of Sunday in the Park with George. Brown's often ponderous lyrics miss out on Sondheimite wit and cleverness … Thanks to Carvel's fraught performance as Leo, this superintendent of a pencil-making factory emerges as a nervy, charmless outsider, uncomfortable in his own skin and this location, irritably at odds with his devoted wife (a shrill-voiced Lara Pulver) … The second half flags: Uhry and Brown spend too much grieving over the dead girl and turning the Franks into passionate lovers, too little in showing what a national furore the case caused. Despite these flaws, Parade makes a devastating, emotional show.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “In a West End awash with froth and stage remakes of old movies, here at last comes an original musical of real substance … Written by Alfred Uhry, best known for Driving Miss Daisy, and with a powerful score by Jason Robert Brown that takes in gospel, blues, ragtime and hymns, the piece concerns a notorious, real-life American miscarriage of justice … Uhry's script, co-conceived with the show's original director Hal Prince, sometimes recalls Arthur Miller's The Crucible in its depiction of just how easy it is to fan horror into vengeful hysteria, and the piece undoubtedly makes for uneasy watching for those of us who work in the inky trade … Bertie Carvel gives a splendidly compelling performance as the deeply repressed Leo Frank, whose nervy manner and inability to respond to his wife's unconditional love arouses suspicion in the audience as well as the jury. Lara Pulver is deeply moving as his loyal spouse, and there is strong support from Shaun Escoffery as a deeply unreliable witness, Mark Bonnar as a corrupt prosecutor and Gary Milner as the Governor who changes his mind.”
- by Tom Atkins