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. Why, then, has it taken ten years to cross the Atlantic and find favour, as it surely will, with discerning audiences in Covent Garden?
Because it received one bad review from the all-important New York Times, that’s why, and closed after a mere 84 performances at the Lincoln Center. Like Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, or Change, Parade will have its reputation enhanced, if not necessarily commercially endorsed with a West End transfer, by this London reprieve.
The script by Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) tells the chilling true-life story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager in Atlanta, Georgia, who, in 1913, was falsely convicted of murdering a teenage girl on the grounds that he was the last person to see her alive. The twist in the tale comes from the fact that he’s a white victim of racist hysteria. His wife stands by him, fighting to commute his sentence, deepening their attachment until all is undone in a frenzied climax and tragic coda.
It’s not exactly Hairspray, but nor is Ashford’s production too hard to sit through, though there are longeurs in the first act. That may be a result of a sensational opening number – one of several ensemble explosions - which elides a soldier’s lament in the Civil War with a rumbustious company dream of Atlanta. But the rest of the show - “co-conceived” and originally directed by Hal Prince - fully exploits a rich seam of the vision of an integrated society scuppered by human flaw.
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.