Cremorne Theatre, QPAC (Warehaus Theatre)


Book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown

Profit share production

Eight years on from its controversial debut on Broadway, Parade remains a fascinating but difficult musical, but it’s just the kind of thing that the bright young company Warehaus Theatre love to tackle.

They earned their place in the Brisbane scene with last year’s edgy and very successful production of Sondheim’s Assassins, a dark and violent musical that explores the underbelly of American politics. Parade is in the same mould, an enquiry into the trial and eventual lynching of Leo Frank. The story is based on a real case – Frank, a Jewish New Yorker, had come to live in Georgia with his Atlanta-born wife Lucille. He had an administrative job at the National Pencil Factory and in 1913 was falsely accused of the murder of the thirteen-year old Mary Phagan, who had a holiday job there. His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but on the second anniversary of Mary’s death a lynch mob abducted him and drove him 130 miles to his ghastly death.

These are the only known facts about the case, and the real murderer has never been found. The musical examines the dark and troubled nature of the times, when there was more than one layer of prejudice in Georgia. As the prosecutor muttered to his off-sider about a Negro janitor who is the first suspect (Jeremy Youse is totally convincing here), “Hanging another nigger ain’t enough this time. We gotta do better than that.” < BR>
The chief witness, another janitor who had absconded from a chain-gang, is bribed to testify against Leo Frank, even though there are strong suspicions that he is the real murderer, and the plot revolves not just around this blatant miscarriage of justice, but also around the love relationship between Frank and his wife Lucille.

A strong theme, therefore, and there’s no denying Brown’s debt to his mentor Stephen Sondheim. Modern musicals have moved on from the cheerful fairy tales of the mid 20th century, and Sondheim has led the way with grimly sub-texted shows like Assassins, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd . The tradition has clearly struck a chord with Warehaus, and it’s a style which they interpret with supreme skill, the acting and production values being so high that I have to wonder why it’s only in the last year that they’ve manifested themselves. It’s hard to fault the choreography (Caron Koch), the design (Silvia Balazova) and Cienda McNamara’s direction, which combine with a super-talented cast to bring this edgy musical alive in a way that we don’t often see in Brisbane.

It’s rare, also, to see an amateur company with a cast who can act as well as they sing and dance, and the chorus work is particularly impressive. But the soloists stand out, too, especially Michael Balk as a frightened but indignant Leo Frank, the beautifully-voiced Penny Farrow as his wife Lucille, the deep-throated evil of Ryan Goodwin as the ex-con Jim Conley, and Judy Hainsworth’s enchanting high notes as the murdered Mary Phagan, whose ghost keeps returning at the trial like Banquo at the feast.

Why does there always have to be a But? My only problem on opening night was with the musical itself which, for all its worthy political and moral motivation, was derivative in a way that wasn’t really successful. There are resonances of the Brecht/Weill musicals of Germany in the 1930s, and more than a nod to Stephen Sondheim, the modern master of the genre, but Parade just doesn’t live up to its promise. Jason Robert Brown may have won a Tony Award for it, but I found it too long by at least an hour, not least because we were told how it would end, so there was no suspense to keep us on the edge of our seats. Nor was the music good enough to sustain my interest, at least – not one memorable or even hummable tune, even though it was technically accomplished. Comparisons might be odious, but with Sondheim, for example, once you’ve heard the signature song, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and his melody stay with you for ever, and such a claim can’t be made here, not even for the title tune The Old Red Hills of Home. The American South is famous for its tuneful music as much as for its lynch mentality, so why not incorporate some of it into this often gloomy score?

I wish I could have liked it more, but I have to admit that I voted with my feet and we left at interval. Not even the energetic talented cast could keep us in our seats, especially as we already knew the denouement, for three hours is a very long time for a show that hasn’t much musical sparkle. This is not a reflection on anyone in the cast and production team, which was very slick and professional, except for some clumsy scene changes and the live orchestra’s propensity to drown some of the singers.

Other audiences have also voted with their feet, it seems – the show ran for only 84 regular performances when it was first performed on Broadway, and I think I can see why. There’s colour and movement here in Warehaus’s production, and energy to burn, but grim realism isn’t an integral part of the genre of the musical, and there’s a strange imbalance here between the true story behind the plot and the distancing effect that a lightness of touch can achieve. So, very reluctantly, I have to say 6/10 for the vehicle, 8/10 for performance values, and 10/10 for effort.

A good try, though, and another example of the talent that this theatre company is attracting. But perhaps a different choice of material might work better for their next production – what about Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera , or its 18th century precursor by John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera? Now there are two musicals I’d like to see this very gifted company have a crack at.

Directed by Cienda McNamara

Playing 12 – 29 July 2006, Tuesday – Saturday 8pm, matinees Wednesday and Saturday 2pm

Duration : three hours, with one interval

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— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 13th July 2006)