NODA Review by Jon Fox
PARADE – Epsom Light Opera Company – 22nd April 2015

Great musicals come in many forms. The truly great shows leave their mark long after leaving the theatre. They have glorious music and songs, usually great dance and company production numbers and, above all, a believable story. “Parade” has the priceless advantage of being a true story, albeit one of hate, ignorance, prejudice and cruelty. The “Parade” of the title alludes to Confederate Memorial Day an annual celebration in the southern states of America.

Set between 1913 – 1915 in the state of Georgia, some 50 years after the end of the American Civil War, the plot revolves around the arrest, trial, imprisonment and eventual lynching of a Jewish New Yorker, Leo Frank, and his wife Lucille’s efforts to free him. Leo was a factory superintendent and, after a young 13 year old female employee was found brutally murdered in his factory on Confederate Memorial Day 1913, the townspeople bring huge pressure on the soon outgoing state Governor of Georgia to convict someone.

This gritty show’s authenticity was largely due to the realistic portrayal by all the main characters. The two leads Russell Hawkins and Charlie Qureshi as Leo and Lucille Frank respectively, gave bravura performances and quickly gained the audience’s sympathy. Russell imbued Leo with an intense frustration after his arrest and Charlie gave a steeliness of purpose to the slender frame of Lucille. Her persistence with Governor Slaton at the Tea Dance was powerful stuff as was her singing in “Do it Alone”.

The prosecutor, Atlanta’s District Attorney Hugh Dorsey (later becoming the State Governor), was played by Damien de Roche. Anti-semitism being rife in the state, Dorsey, who was powerful and charismatic, was determined to convict Leo at all costs. Damien brought this deeply unpleasant character to life extremely well.

Newt Lee, the black factory night watchman who discovered the body, was other initial suspect and it is implied that he was the actual killer. Eddie Hinds played this troubled character with skill.

Young Olivia Wilson was the murdered teenager Mary Phagan and Peter Wheeler her boyfriend Frankie Epps, full of vengeance and fury at her death. Both were authentic. You could feel the raw emotion during Mary’s funeral sequence and her mother’s grief was palpable. Monica Wallis as Mrs Phagan acted the part wonderfully and sang her song “My Child will forgive me” with tremendous emotion.

Three powerful performances were given by Anthony Trott, Richard Qureshi and Keith Robertshaw as Tom Watson, Britt Craig and Judge Roan respectively.

Jennifer Bye was Minnie McKnight, the Frank’s servant and a sympathetic character who, however, lied at Leo’s trial. She played this “put upon” part with rare emotion. An enjoyable part. Daniel Haswell as Jim Conley, a convict, is an actor to watch. he sang “That’s what He Said” and the blues song “Feel the Rain Fall” with a rare emotion and animal magnetism that marks him out as a rising star. I expect to hear more about this young man.

Crispian Shepley played Luther Rosser, Leo Frank’s largely ineffective Attorney and also Mr Peavy convincingly. Chris Evans was Governor Slaton whose conscience eventually led him to commute the death sentence to life imprisonment. He carried great stage presence throughout.

Becky Bond, Courtney Harrington and Eloise Brown were Iola Stover, Monteen and Essie, poor Mary’s friends at the factory showing their anger, grief and frustration quite naturally. Yet even they were prepared to lie in their court testimony with the song “Up to my Office”.

Rick Thompsett was an old Soldier in a wheelchair suitably troubled by his heroics in the Civil War half a century earlier and determined to help convict the Jewish Yankee. His wife Lila was played by Linda Sutch. The same characters as young people were played by Peter Hartley and Nicola Howlett.

The director James Fortune really understood and brought out the theatricality of this show and made the audience really think in depth. The scenes flowed naturally, helped by the minimal set used throughout. The factory, court and jail scenes were skilfully put together and the prominent tree from which Leo Frank was hanged built the tension to an almost unbelievable pitch.

Music and singing were of a high standard thanks to the sterling efforts of Musical Director Dennis Hooker. I was not familiar with the music, but found much of it moving and touching. “The Old Red Hills of Home” (part 1 and 2), “It don’t make Sense”, “Real Big news” and “It’s Hard to Speak my Heart” stood out. Pretty evocative music throughout, sung with real and raw emotion.

There were some well choreographed musical scenes under the eagle eye of Helen Parker. the Tea Dance was beautifully done and I especially liked “Where will You Stand when the Flood Comes?” “Real Big News” featuring the chorus holding up newspaper headlines must have been a challenge – it was highly effective. A youngish company ensured some nimble movements and they were very well choreographed.

Lighting by designer Simon banks was cleverly used throughout the show and the energy and buzz of the townsfolk to help convict Leo, even by lying in court as many did, built the sense of injustice. Scenery was designed by the Stage Manager Sarah Wood and Director James Fortune. Kris Benjafield supplied the costumes and Jo Epps co-ordinated to great effect.

A special mention must go to the informative and detailed programme in newspaper format – the best I have seen this year. NODA awards are given to the best programme for the whole year.

My partner Sue and I were treated like royalty and I am extremely grateful to ELOC’s hospitality and welcome. This was an extremely well directed, sung, and choreographed show of which the company and dedicated production team should be rightfully proud.

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I’d like to thank our superb sound designer Stuart Vaughan who was not mentioned in the review even though his sound was PERFECT.

His work defines the expression “the art that conceals the art” and because of that is often not commented on because his work is so perfect.

Thanks for your quiet expertise Stuart from all of us.

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