Thursday, September 20, 2007

JRB's Parade Makes West End Debut

As I mentioned in a recent post, I spent this past weekend in London on a bit of a theatre binge. Since I've got another one coming this weekend, I figured I should be diligent in my posting so that I am sure to get all my reviews and commentary in while they are still relevant!

My Friday evening was spent at the London production of Wicked. Mind you, I was fortunate to have seen the original Broadway cast, with the exception of Norbert Leo Butz who was having back surgery. But his understudy was Taye Diggs, so that was cool. What was not cool was the fact that I was suffering from a rapid onset of the flu and don't really remember that much of it. Of course, I have since become very familiar with the show and was happy to finally see it with a clear head.

Saturday afternoon was spent at the Dirty Dancing matinee. You can read my complete review but I think I can sum it up in one comment: The only way that you will get me to see that show again would be if Prince William himself was Johnny Castle. I'm appalled that the presale for this show was the equivalent of ~$24M. GAWD!

Fortunately my Saturday night ended on a theatrical high. When I was checking out listings, I was absolutely thrilled to stumble upon the fact that JRB's Parade was due to begin previews the very weekend I was going to be in London's West End. I have been wanting to see this show live and what better place than at the respected Donmar Warehouse?

After a quick spot of Indian food, I headed over to the Donmar to watch this haunting and distinctly American musical unfold before a British audience. Rob Ashford, who was the swing in the Broadway production, adapted the musical nicely to the small space and effectively reduced the cast size from a staggering 35 to a modest 15.

The story, based on actual events, is skillfully retold by Tony and Pulizter Prize-winning author Alfred Uhry and the increasingly popular composer Jason Robert Brown. Set in 1913 Atlanta, Parade tells the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman who is accused of killing a 13-year-old girl in the basement of his pencil factory. The ensuing trial and media circus provides a timely commentary on one of those shameful points in American history where ignorance and greed will out over truth and justice.

After having sat through an afternoon of tortured American accents, I was pleased to see that this cast had been well-coached. Their Southern drawl was believable enough to pass muster with me anyway. So I was able to quickly more to the heart of this production. The cast. Led quite impressively by Bertie Carvel as the mild-mannered Leo Frank, this troupe manages their multiple roles in a way that truly defines ensemble.

Ashford's crisp staging has the actors facilitating the scene changes, allowing little opportunity for interstitial applause. This technique benefits this particular production nicely and is aptly managed through use of music, a quickly-paced dialogue or the establishment of a new scene. While Ashford is noted for his Tony Award-winning choreography, I felt his staging bested his choreography, which came off as frenetic and out of place. Also out of place was the "phantom actress", who was double-cast as Lila and Mary Phagan, when she appeared from time to time in full Scarlett O'Hara regalia.

Jason Robert Brown's music really is quite beautiful. And there are moments in this score that just cut you to core. Almost as harrowing as Moritz Stiefel's funeral in Spring Awakening is the scene when the young girl who has been murdered is buried. Making use of the traditional hymn, "There Is A Fountain", Brown overlays the ballad "No It Don't Make Sense" with devastating effect. Watching a parent bury a child is about as gut-wrenching as it gets and, in this instance, it is exquisitely accompanied by the score.

I was disappointed, however, that "Big News" was cut from this production, as it really is a great piece. However, it is challenging for even the best of singers and sometimes directorial and artistic decisions have to be made. There are several other beautiful ballads in Parade but the song that you leave the theatre humming is "The Old Red Hills Of Home". The show's opener and closer, with its patriotic build and well-blended harmonies, is gloriously sung by this London cast.

Of course, every cast has its standouts. Carvel navigated his character's emotional and vocal levels with just the right blend of timidity and fortitude. Lara Pulver delivered a fine performance as Lucille, Frank's crusading and supportive wife. However, there is a lyric describing Lucille Frank as a mousy wife and Ms. Pulver read more stunning and refined than mousy. Mark Bonnar was convincingly detestable as the prosecuting attorney, Hugh Dorsey, and Stuart Matthew Price, as the murdered girl's vengeful friend, countered the ugliness of his character with a lovely tenor.

The minimalist set served the various scenes nicely, with an upper level used for the factory, the judge's bench, a fishing bridge and the gallows from which Leo Frank is lynched. This climactic moment needs a little tightening, as it seemed an eternity that I was focusing on the caribiner being attached to the actor's harness. The backdrop, a weathered portrait of a community in the Confederate South, added a bit of interest without being overbearing. The one exception is when the Confederate flag is illiminated by a garish red light for some reason, which I can't recall. It must not have been to any tremendous dramatic effect or I think I would remember.

The costumes remained within period, with the exception of the black jersey-knit boxer briefs that Leo Frank was wearing when he stripped down to his skivvies. I don't usually tend to comment on costumes, unless something really stands out. Since this was the second public performance, I will presume that the safety pins that held many of the costumes will be replaced by sturdy thread. And while I am commenting, they needn't bother strapping down the bosoms of the actresses portraying the younger set, it does not flatter the costumes. I'm quite certain all will be in order come opening night. Believe me, I know what opening weekends can be like.

All in all, I found this production to be very moving. It had the right blend of talent, structure and material to make me feel as though I spent my money wisely. This is definitely a production where the return on your investment stays with you long after you paid your credit card bill.

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