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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Donmar Theatre Autumn 2007

This 1998 American musical starts off rather slowly, particularly in what seems a fairly lifeless production by Rob Ashford. But it quietly builds up steam, and a strong second act rewards your patience.

The story is based on fact, the 1913 murder of a young girl in Georgia, for which Leo Frank was convicted and later dragged from prison by a mob and lynched, mainly because he was an outsider, a northerner and a Jew.

(A central irony of the case is that the actual murderer was probably a black man, but anti-Semitism and anti-Yankee feelings trumped racial prejudice.)

Unlikely material for a musical, but so are the stories of Sweeney Todd and Doctorow's Ragtime, whose musical version appeared the same year as Parade and somewhat overshadowed it.

Alfred Uhry, chronicler of Southern Jews, wrote the book, with songs by Jason Robert Brown, and it is the solid dramatic framework and characters that carry the show. Brown's songs are generally undistinguished and forgettable, either more recitatif than melody or, like 'Do It Alone,' a little too obviously imitation Sondheim.

Combined with surprisingly pedestrian direction and choreography by Rob Ashford, the first act, which takes us through Frank's trial, seems overly glum (even for the subject) and plodding.

Even the one big moment that stopped the show in New York a nightmarish musical number in which Frank becomes the leering monster that trial witnesses describe him as - is underplayed here, going by without making much impression.

But while Brown's songs and Ashford's direction have been failing to impress, Uhry's book has quietly been developing the central characters, so that the second act, which focuses on Frank's wife's attempts to save him, is much stronger.

Bertie Carvel as Leo and Lara Pulver as Lucille come into their own here, as does Gary Milner as the governor who sacrifices his political career to support their appeal. And a real human story, not just of the search for justice, but of two people rediscovering their love and of a man discovering his conscience, fully engages our attention and our sympathy.

It helps that the second act has the two best numbers in the show, a dance at the governor's mansion which Lucille interrupts, and which Rob Ashford finally choreographs both attractively and dramatically, and 'All The Wasted Time,' in which Frank realises how much he loves his wife and she revels in his discovery.

Until that climactic number, Bertie Carvel is more successful at acting Leo Frank than singing him (though, to be fair, he's not given much of melody to sing), capturing the shy, repressed quality that could so easily be mistaken, even by him, for coldness.

Uhry's book makes Lucille, perhaps a bit anachronistically, a model of female emancipation as, almost unaware of it herself, she grows from passive housewife to invincible fighter for justice, and Lara Pulver makes the transformation both believable and dramatic.

It is their performances, and Alfred Uhry's slow-burning narrative, that carry the evening.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Parade - Donmar Theatre 2007