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Review: Parade at Seymour Centre

Review by Giddy Pillai

It’s 26 April 1913 and, along with the rest of Atlanta, Georgia, 13 year old Mary Phagan is excited to attend the annual Confederate Memorial Day parade. On her way, she stops by the pencil factory she works at to collect her paycheck from the superintendent, Leo Frank. Sadly, Mary never makes it out. Her body is discovered overnight in the factory basement by the night watchman Newt Lee. As far as anyone knows, Leo Frank was the last person to have seen her alive.

Newt, who is Black and Leo, who is Jewish, become the prime suspects in a murder investigation flanked by media attention and public outrage in an overwhelmingly white Atlanta. Amidst pressure to obtain a conviction, the police focus their suspicions on Leo. He is charged, tried and found guilty after the factory janitor comes forward with an incriminating story, and a parade of young female workers testify that Leo was a sexual predator. Each witness echoes the last – word for word – and Leo is convicted by a jury, sentenced to death and thrown in jail to await his fate. Thanks to the tireless efforts of his wife Lucille, who lobbies the governor to look at the many deficiencies in the trial process, this sentence is commuted. But before the matter can resolve, a vigilante mob, led by some of the most prominent public figures, take matters into their own hands and lynch Leo. His murder marked the birth of both the Anti-Defamation League and the Ku Klux Klan, and led to a mass exodus of Jewish people from Georgia. 

Over a century later, Leo Frank is almost unanimously regarded as innocent (in fact, his case is currently being re-examined in an effort to clear his name once and for all). And even in places as far-removed from 1913 Atlanta as present-day Sydney, key themes in his story resonate: the villainisation of minorities by majorities during times of heightened threat or moral panic; the tension between believing people who come forward with stories of sexual victimisation and insisting on hard evidence that is frequently impossible to produce; the often viral proliferation of fake news; the rise of extremist groups willing to take matters into their own hands when things don’t play out as they’d like. Last year, when Soundworks Productions’ version of Parade premiered in Melbourne, it did so against the terrifying backdrop of neo-Nazi protests at the steps of the state Parliament House.

This was my first time seeing Parade, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going in. I’m a fan of musical theatre, but I’m a recent convert. I much prefer the darker, weirder turn that the genre has taken in the 21st century to the blockbuster productions that I remember from my childhood as a 90s kid (which often seemed to me to be dripping with cheese and higher on style than substance). But if I was worried that Parade – which debuted in 1998 – might fail to do justice to its sobering subject matter, it was unfounded. This show is stylish and substantial, spectacular and nuanced, beautiful to look at and thought-provoking. If you’re the kind of theatre fan who tends to roll your eyes at musicals, I’d encourage you to give Parade a shot – it may well surprise you.

The show’s Tony award-winning writers Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown deserve all the credit they have been given for creating a work that manages to conjure up a visceral sense of early 20th century Georgia, while maintaining a focus on human and social truths that resonated with late 20th century audiences and that continue to do so well into the 21st century. And Soundworks deserve plenty of credit for putting together a thoughtful production that adds plenty of its own depth. One glance at the program (which is rich, detailed and well worth a read) makes it clear how much care has gone into ensuring that every production element serves the story that’s being told. 

And the care that has been put in pays off in spades. Harry Gill’s set is minimalistic, but replete with detail. Wooden flooring and beams evoke the factory that the Phagan murder centres around, the gallows that hang over Leo and the old oak tree that proves central to the story in multiple ways. Faded confederate imagery painted into the wood plants us firmly in the deep South of the USA, and hints at the depth of nationalistic sentiment. Costumes (also by Gill) clearly indicate the social hierarchy of the characters and are historically faithful while consciously emphasising design elements that have remained influential through to the present day. This helps to make the characters feel simultaneously rooted in the past and relatable. The overall design aesthetic is muted. Aided by Sidney Younger’s lighting, the effect is almost like watching old footage play out on screen.

Under the tight direction of Mark Taylor, the excellent cast portray a set of clearly conceived characters that stay consistent throughout the show and that interact with each other in nuanced ways. This is underlined by Freya List’s brilliant choreography which plays a key narrative role, illustrating how these characters collectively operate as a society, and often cleverly evoking the kinds of images you might see on the front page of a newspaper. The collective effect of all these production choices is to create a world that feels rich and three-dimensional, and that audiences feel connected to despite being definitively cast as spectators. This underlines the idea that Parade is a story from a different time and place, but one that has ongoing relevance.

Part of what I think makes Parade feel so timeless is that while it is Leo Frank’s story, it is more a story of what society does to him – as a person from a cultural minority in the wrong place at the wrong time – than it is an exploration of his individual experience. It would be equally compelling to use this story as a vehicle for a deep-dive into the psychological toll that being scapegoated has on a person, but it would be compelling in a different way, and it would be a different show. Leo is neither written as overtly sympathetic nor unsympathetic, and this underlines the fact that, however likeable or unlikeable he may have been in real life is neither relevant to the caricatured portrait of him that took hold in Atlantan society nor to the grievous legal injustices he experienced. Leo’s inner world certainly gets its moments, but they don’t really get more stage time than any of the other characters’. Frequently he is shown in the corner of the stage, languishing in his jail cell, while the sentiments, agendas and motivations of other players are placed front and centre.

This makes the role a challenging one for an actor. The show depends on the audience being able to connect emotionally with Leo’s experience, but the writing is understated enough that achieving this hinges on the strength of the performer. Aaron Robuck does a phenomenal job. From his first moments, his Leo feels like a real, multifaceted person who feels out-of-step with Georgian society. It’s natural to empathise with him and to viscerally feel that the injustices done to him are an affront to human dignity. His vocals are absolutely stunning, but what stood out most to me is the emotional honesty he was able to convey from start to end. It’s a masterful performance. Montana Sharp is equally outstanding as Leo’s wife Lucille. Her precise, soaring vocals and restrained but confident demeanour combine into a rich portrait of a gentle but headstrong woman who knows how to Get Things Done and who – in contrast to Leo – navigates society with grace and ease. 

A handful of other performances were really memorable for me. Guillaume Gentil paints a larger-than-life, formidable and at times menacing portrait of janitor, star prosecution witness and potential killer Jim Conley. His second act solo, ‘Blues: Feel the Rain Fall’ is a highlight of the show. Adeline Hunter’s Mary Phagan captures the innocence, eagerness and thirst for life of an adolescent taking her first steps into the adult world. Maverick Newman’s portrayal of journalist Britt Craig is bursting with all the frenetic energy of a hustler chasing a make-or-break career moment. He’s as oily and self-interested as they come, but there’s a seed of genuine empathy that peeks through occasionally, granting him depth. But really, this is an ensemble show that is brought to life by a cast that are excellent without exception and that work magically together under the musical direction of Mark Bradley. The choral numbers absolutely shine, and every performer had multiple moments where they stood out individually. Honestly, I feel like the things that jumped out for me often depended on where on the stage I happened to be looking at any given moment – the action in this show is jam-packed with nuanced details and the entire cast never missed a beat. 

The only things that didn’t quite hit right for me are trivial in the scheme of things. Flashing lights are used a couple of times for dramatic effect, and while I appreciated the creative choice, these were blindingly bright and broke the experience a little. Similarly, relevant historical information was occasionally projected onto screens, and while this enhanced the narrative, it was difficult to read clearly from the middle of the theatre, and would probably be a struggle to make out for all but the most eagle-eyed audience members in the back rows. These are very minor elements of the production, and I mention them only in case it might help refine the show, if not for this run then perhaps for future iterations – I very much hope that other cities get to experience this production!

When a work is held in very high esteem, or when it deals with particularly sensitive subject matter, the burden of doing it justice weighs heavier. Parade is both of these things. It’s not an easy musical to stage, and Soundworks have risen to the challenge and put on a powerful and memorable show. This will never be a piece of theatre that’s an easy watch, but this production is a deeply worthwhile experience.

Image Credit: Matthew Chen


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