Parade is a complicated musical with complicated characters. It addresses a panoply of prejudices: race, sex and religion. It has an unusual and arguably unlikeable hero in the pedantic and penny-watching Leo Frank. It does not depict young, heady lovers but instead explores a middle-aged couple, finally falling in love after a life of ‘wasted years’. It asks us to engage with the citizens of Georgia, whilst also painting them as a thoroughly rotten bunch. Straightforward razzmatazz it is not.
Thom Southerland’s production at the Southwark Vaults begins delicately enough. It is 1913 and a group of young men gather with their lovers, preparing to be packed off to war. Samuel J Weir, as the young soldier, has a remarkably pure voice and the impression is that of a twisted lullaby, as his dulcet crooning accompanies a legion of men fall to their deaths. Jason Robert Brown’s score rises jubilantly and the atmosphere clangs with contradictions, joyous and fearful and sad.
And then the plot proper, penned by Alfred Uhry, kicks in. A local lass is killed and a murderer must be found. A black man is under suspicion but, as prosecutor Hugh Dorsey notes coolly, ‘We need something more than a nigger’. So, the corrupt cops find a Jew instead, which should surely keep the masses happily outraged. No matter that the evidence against him is scant and seriously compromised.
Southerland uses the traverse space cleverly, emphasising Leo Frank’s isolation and the great mass of people who stand in the way of his freedom. This is a highly polished ensemble and, as the crowd roars for ‘The Hammer of Justice’, their unthinking anger rumbles forcefully. They do, however, sing very very loudly. The cast is miked up to the max and sometimes the wall of sound is so strong, it risks blocking the audience out altogether. It also lends the spoken sections a spooky gloss, which seriously compromises their authenticity.
The solo numbers work better within the skewed soundscape and allow for a little more nuance, rather than the blast of singular emotions so regularly displayed here. When Alastair Brooksaw’s Leo Frank defends himself with the trembling, ‘It’s Hard to Speak My Heart’, he turns from a stiff ‘type’ into into a living and loveable chap.
But it is Terry Doe, as a manipulated witness and later a suspect, who resurrects the show’s soul. He simply is the music and all the posturing and polish of the very well trained musical cast feels superficial in his wake. Doe’s whole body expresses the score and, as he slithers and soars through ‘Blues: Feel the Rain’, the otherwise neglected black citizens of Georgia blast into life.
Doe is a real and exciting talent, who could not be generic if he tried. Yet there is a risk of ‘sameness’ in this production as a whole, which is often impressive but occasionally crude. For a piece that examines all manner of racism, it’s a little too black and white. The evil characters are utter snakes, the stage shading over their presence. Religion is seen as a comprehensively corrosive force, hymns fluttering in the wind as the crowd works itself into a righteous frenzy.
It’s hard to fault such a self-assured production but I suspect this brimming confidence is part of the problem. This production of Parade feels like a Broadway audition. Sure, it’d probably pass the test but its clean lines sell this gritty piece short. In a final flashback scene, we are shown the second (black) suspect grab the (pre) murdered girl and whisk her inside. As the citizens gather beneath the American flag to wail out their patriotism, the triumphant murderer cackles overhead. It feels a simplistic way to end a far from simple story.