Review: Parade. Leicester Amateur Operatic Society. Curve Leicester.

Imagine a gleeful crowd is gathering for a public hanging. Bring a picnic why don’t we!? Let’s parade our righteousness in public for all to see and commemorate our confederacy and moral collusion with pride.

Morally appalling to our modern sensitivities to witness the cruel death of a man or woman, huh? However it is now 1913 in Atlanta USA. We are in a small town called Marietta. The American Civil War (1861 – 1865) stills sits historically raw in the collective memory of many in the Southern States of America and the USA as a whole. Rough justice stills prevails and lynching is very much alive in 1913. Grievances and racial tensions prevail at this time, and they linger as a savage undercurrent of social unrest. Prejudice not only exists between whites and African- American Negroes but also anyone outside of the dominant Protestant population – including those of the Jewish faith considered elite or otherwise. According to the limited social mentality of the time few are to be trusted and hanging is a popular remedy for perceived injustice.

In Parade, a nervous Yankee (American Northerner) Jew called Leo Frank is easy meat for such prejudice in a court case involving the death of a young girl where Leo Frank works. This innocent young girl is named Mary Phagan and the court jury find it easy to embrace half truths and outright lies as it convicts the Jewish Leo Frank of her murder. But will he escape the hangman’s noose by the end of the tale?

Such are the considerations and moral dilemmas behind Jason Robert Brown’s musical drama, Parade performed in the intimate studio space at Curve Leicester by Leicester Amateur Operatic Society.

It is brave and unusual for an amateur musical society to take on such a non commercial but fantastic piece of work. LAOS do a superb job of orchestrating (musical director Steven Duguid) and presenting this fascinating look at real historical events through the medium of musical theatre. Lee Samuels directs this generally taut production and choreographer Hollie Carrington blends hoe-down with modern choreography to achieve a dance mixture that carries the show forward both musically and visually. Overall, there is a proper sense of dusty history and frightened community shown by this most excellent and talented company. Their Parade is very believable and naturalistic and authentically sung without over-doing the Southern accents.

The large studio space at Curve is well utilised both in the staging and discrete accommodation of the orchestra. The live orchestra is hidden behind a gauze and we discover that the sound balance between musicians and players is as near perfect as one would hope for. Projections onto the gauze further disguise the musicians’ presence and add atmosphere.

The otherwise empty stage is home to a pair of movable, tall and very solid steps. These serve as theatrical elevations creating many and varied locations. Swiftly placed furniture props also help us to imagine various intimate venues such as the gaol house and the Franks’ bedroom and allow for successful transitions between scenes. Such minimalist settings work well as the ensemble endeavour (very successfully) to create vocal (sung) ambience and dramatic tensions throughout through movement, dramatic text, and song. The costumes are supplied by Leicester Drama Society and add a strong degree of period authenticity.

The singing throughout is top class with some fine and moving amateur voices giving their emotional all, be they ensemble, duets or individuals. Tom Mottram and Lisa Heath are beyond excellent as Leo and Lucille Frank. Both together and separately they form a dramatic and musical tour de force. They hold the tension for the entire show and Mottram’s nervous Jew, Leo Frank, is deeply moving.

As the murder victim Mary Phagan Jacqueline Ardron is sweetly coquettish and her singing in Frankie’s Testimony is heart breaking. Tim Stokes as young would-be boyfriend Frankie Epps puts in a very confident and professional performance as does James Summers as jury antagonist Jim Conley in his vibrant and stirring rendition of ‘That’s What He Said’.

Amongst a large and talented cast Joshua Harding is deeply soulful as Newt Lee and Shelley Henry moves us as Minola (Minnie) McKnight with her performance in Minnie’s Testimony. Nick Cox as the antagonistic stirrer of public conscience Hugh Dorsey is fine voiced and admirable in acting out his character’s despicable behaviours. Helen Mary Boyce compels as the grief -struck mother (Mrs Phagan) of Mary. Boyce’s presentation of ‘My Child Will Forgive Me’ causes many a trickling tear amongst tonight’s utterly rapt audience.

Duplicity and deceit play larger than life roles in Jason Robert Brown’s Parade where its themes have many a contemporary resonation reflecting social injustice and dysfunctional elements of public office out to demonise elements of society. Where have we possibly heard that before?

Even seemingly respectable members of the town of Marietta are caught up in the hysteria disguised as justice. When the case is reopened in the second half we might think that the Franks’ lives are about to be saved but history and this musical theatre performance gives us many new twists and turns and an unpredictable end to this excellently executed performance of Parade.

Reviewer: Phil Lowe

Highly recommended.

Suitable 14+

Parade runs at Leicester Curve until 9th September.

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