Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Dixie Chick

Went to the Donmar Warehouse on Saturday evening, with MLYW and our friend Vanessa to see the musical Parade.

In brief, it's the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish New Yorker who made his home in Atlanta, Georgia (he married a local girl), as manager of a pencil factory. A young factory worker, Mary Phagan, was brutally raped and murdered and suspicion fell upon him as the last one to see her alive. While the case against him was only circumstantial, politicians and "yellow" newspapers declared him guilty and he was sentenced to death.

A vigorous campaign by New York groups, coordinated by Leo's wife, Lucille, convinced the governor of Georgia that there was sufficient doubt to commute his sentence. But while the case was being reviewed, and before a re-trial could be ordered, Leo was kidnapped from his cell and lynched.

This is a case which is little-known outside the US, though I understand it is still felt keenly in some circles (MaryB, is that right?).

I don't usually go for musicals, but I had read about the story earlier this year and I found it intriguing - and I wondered how it was possible to make an evening's entertainment from such a tragic story.

The Warehhouse is quite a small space, with a thrust stage surrounded on 3 sides by compact seating which would make any performance there an intimate one. The challenge of setting a 2.5 hour musical there were formidable, but the staging is a huge success. A balcony, and a 'porch' beneath it, upstage of the main stage allow up to 3 areas to be utilised simultaneously, while the only furnishings used were a couple of chairs, a table or two and various light fittings, flown in from above. Thus the actors brought their 'scenery' on with them and kept the piece moving along at a good pace.

The play starts 50 years prior to the main action, with a prologue showing one of the sons of Georgia going off to fight in the civil war, taking his leave from his sweetheart, Lila. I'm not sure if this scene really works, even with Lila periodically returning to watch over the later proceedings like a ghost. I guess this device is meant to point out that the events surrounding Leo Franks are both caused by and coloured by the South's defeat in the war, but it did seem like we were rather spoonfed this imagery. The lynching of a man (innocent or guilty) outside the due process of law is a savage and shameful act, no matter what the provocation, nor what political motive lay behind it.

After the prologue, the story is laid out in a fairly straightforward manner, though the author's opinion as to whether Leo is guilty or innocent is cleverly hidden and not revealed until the very end of the piece, long after he has been hanged.

The cast, for the most part, were excellent. Of special note were Bertie Carvel as Leo Frank (fantastic characterisation, though at times a little quiet from up in the "circle"), Lara Pulver as Lucille (excellent all round) and Mark Bonnar as Hugh Dorsey (totally believable and even strangely sympathetic as the high-flying DA, determinded to make Leo 'swing').

Outstanding for me was Shaun Escoffery who played 3 main parts, but was so versatile that we were convinced they were actually played by 2 different actors. His 'blues' in Act 2 was also a highlight.

While I can't profess to be able to whistle any of the tunes (maybe that's why the original production closed quickly on Broadway despite winning a Tony) they were all of the highest quality. Some of the numbers sung by the more dubious politicians and journalists, and the chorus numbers sung by the townsfolk, bent on revenge, were of a deliberately jaunty and perky tone. These rags and minstrel tunes contrasted jarringly with their subject matter and really made you wonder if you should be tapping your feet along to a song calling for the death of a Jew.

The end of the show brought a standing ovation for this marvellously staged and energetically performed musical. While I'm still not converted to musicals, per se, as a genre, there is now a 3rd one which I have enjoyed to add to my list.

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