Review – Parade, Donmar Warehouse

Tuesday 18 September 2007

A tragedy surrounding a young girl? A grieving parent? A suspect damned by circumstantial evidence created by police anxious for a conviction in a high profile case? A woman crusading for justice? The media whipping up public opinion to a frenzy of hatred? No, the Whingers weren’t flicking through one of this mornings tabloids, (they are all tabloids aren’t they these days?) but sitting watching a musical: Parade at the Donmar Warehouse.

Phil couldn’t help seeing parallels with current events (despite having only one contact lens in due to an eye infection).

Andrew couldn’t see much at all as he was nodding off.

But then Andrew likes his musicals upbeat. He’s much happier at a Gypsy or a Hello Dolly. Give him a feather boa, a walk-down number and a follow-spot (and that’s just in the comfort of his own home) and he’ll be happy for hours.

Unfortunately for Andrew, Parade offers none of these delights; it’s made of much sterner stuff: no enjoying yourself here, thank you very much – this is a serious musical.

Parade is based on the true story of Brooklyn Jew Leo Frank (Bertie Carvel – excellent) who was spuriously convicted for the murder of a 13 year-old factory girl called Mary Phagan in Atlanta, Georgia in 1913. He ended up being lynched in the time-honoured tradition of Southern hospitality.

Given the subject matter there’s little room for big numbers and sequins. But aware of the pitfalls of creating a musical surrounding such a serious subject the creators (book by Alfred Uhry, Music & Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, co-conceived by Harold Prince) have tried their darndest to inject a little levity every now and then to keep Andrew’s chin off his man-boobs. But even these (the moments of levity, not the man-boobs) sit rather uncomfortably and Andrew longed for the deft alchemy of Kander and Ebb.

Predictably, by the interval Andrew had put on his favourite cracked record – his thesis that “The Musical Is Not A Serious Art Form And That Is Not A Criticism” and was shaking his head sadly, wondering when the musical was first hijacked for inappropriate purposes; whenever it was, it was the the thin end of a slippery slopey wedge which culminated tragically in the truly pompous, humourless and entirely terrible Rent (and continues to the present day with what is hopefully its death throe – viz Take Flight).

Phil, on the other hand was “sitting on the fence and falling between two stools”(the latter not related to his recent pre-holiday “health” checks). As usual at the Donmar, Phil was mostly preoccupied with his evergreen laundry list of irksome things to complain about at the Donmar: small toilets and notably rotten site lines (even for “friends” of the Donmar).

The programme boasts of the venue’s “unique thrust stage”, but doesn’t mention that the unique thrusting treats half the audience to a crap view. Several duets were played out with the Whingers staring at the back of a head which also masked the other performer’s face. To counteract this Phil leaned towards Andrew to try and get at least one face in his line of vision, thus disturbing Andrew’s nap, who woke up believing Phil was “getting fresh”. But it’s Andrew who needs to get fresh: Phil, like Mary Archer, is actually rather fragrant.

On the plus side (and setting aside the lyrics) it was mostly comprehensible although the action begins with a seemingly unnecessary prologue set in the Civil War some 50 years earlier, but you need to read the programme (or possibly hear all the lyrics – who knows?) to understand this device: it’s a north/south thing apparently, feelings in Georgia were still high and support for Leo Frank from the north was seen as outside interference.

This, then, will be why each significant event takes place on Confederate Memorial Day and not, say, on Pancake Day which would have given much an opportunity for some much-needed comic business.

As Leo Frank and his wife share a final tryst in his cell the moment was spoiled for Phil who noticed Frank’s bottom to be a rather strange shape as his trousers were unsuccessfully concealing a flying belt for the show’s dramatic lynching (ho hum, the second hanging on the London stage in as many weeks. Yawn). Leo’s bum certainly looked big in this (except to Andrew whose own looks big in everything).

And talking of seconds, Phil sat through his third production containing the nigger “w” in as many weeks.

Parade wasn’t bad; it was all quite competent and the preview audience received it very enthusiastically at the end with much clapping partly, perhaps, out of frustration: the show is engineered to discourage applause at the end of each song (wisely, given the running time of two hours and 45 minutes).

But neither Whinger was really much moved by the whole thing. While it wasn’t quite on the level of “one would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing” it was a curiously unemotional experience.

Much of the singing was fine but the choreography got rather wearing what with all the running round in circles and slapping of table tops.

By the end Andrew had had more than enough, he was intent to rain on this Parade. Phil was much more positive but Parade had certainly passed Andrew by and although he did come out humming a tune, it was “Doe, a Deer” (again).


12 Responses to “Review – Parade, Donmar Warehouse”

  1. Josh Says:

    Oh dear.

    A question: “The Musical Is Not A Serious Art Form And That Is Not A Criticism”
    But…why can’t it be?

  2. Paul Says:

    I agree… But going to see Parade in a couple of weeks so thanks for the heads up!

  3. Whingers, when did “Gypsy” become a “happy” musical? I love it dearly, but I don’t exactly feel uplifted if it’s done right.

    Wondering aloud whether this decidedly American, and more precisely southern U.S.-style, show loses something in its journey across the ocean. Granted it’s been 8 years or so since I saw it, but I found it moving.

    Just wondering. Maybe I’m just a man-boob.

  4. Hmmm. Steve. Gypsy. “when did “Gypsy” become a “happy” musical?” Didn’t say that. Said “The Musical Is Not A Serious Art Form And That Is Not A Criticism”. But it sure is playful:

    You can pull all the stops out
    Till they call the cops out
    Grind your behind till you’re bent
    But you gotta get a gimmick
    If you wanna get ahead!

    You can sacrifice your sacrow (?)
    Working in the back row
    Bump in a dump till you’re dead
    But you gotta have a gimmick
    If you wanna get ahead

    You can uhm… You can uhm…
    You can uhm…uhm…uhm…
    That’s how burlesque was born
    So I uhm… and I uhm…
    And I uhm…uhm…uhm…
    But I do it with a horn

    Once I was a Schleppa
    Now I’m Miss Mazeppa
    With my revolution in dance
    You gotta have a gimmick
    If you wanna have a chance!

  5. Whingers, You’re right. I was reading the line about how “Andrew likes his musicals upbeat. He’s much happier at a Gypsy…” which I, silly American and/or man-boob (your choice) that I am, took to extrapolate as Gypsy=Happy. My apologies.

  6. Mark (a would-be whinger and second best friend) Says:

    SOB, I think you’ll find it’s call a “moob” these days.


  7. […] Telegraph and the Independent agree with my enthusiasm for the most part.  Others, such as the West End Whingers don’t particularly.  But you can’t please everyone, can […]

  8. Mike Morrow Says:

    I couldn’t disagree more with the lead review and will try to put a different perspective on Parade. It can be all too easy to shoot down opinions you don’t agree with, especially when couched in an amusing (and perhaps superficially facile) way. But let’s face it the ‘comedy’ suffix to ‘musical’ disappeared years ago, thank goodness. With opera now an elitist art form (unlike in the 19th century) there is a gaping hole that has been filled by the ‘serious musical’. The West End is now full of musicals that cover the spectrum of the human experience and are we not all better off for the incredible variety on offer?

    Back to the business in hand. I hope to redress the balance on PARADE by pointing out that after the initial reviews the Donmar was packed to the rafters for the entire run. Harold Prince declared composer Jason Robert Brown the new Gershwin – not an easy crown to wear and perhaps inappropriate unless considering Parade along side Porgy and Bess.

    The Donmar production was exemplary with studied, varied yet understated choreography that never distracted from the seriousness of the plot but on the two occasions I saw the show it was the variation in even simple moves that impressed. The performances were considered so good that a cast recording is soon to be issued of the entire show on two CDs together with an accompanying DVD, regrettably not of the show but of interviews with the participants.

    The plot outline has been laid out above and it is a tough tale for a musical to tackle. It is to Brown’s credit that he approaches the Sondheim end of the spectrum in some style while retaining his own distinct voice and keeping away from the cynicism clear in much of The Master’s work. Brown is personally involved and involves the audience in the fate of this unlovable Jew from Brooklyn who is all at sea in The South. He is regarded as an outsider (not one of us – a damn Yankee!) Yet the sheer horror of his fate is engrossing and reminds us that such deeply held attitudes hold sway in all communities throughout time. The story holds out a hand across eighty years to today’s world. You just substitute the attitudes and hatreds to today’s problems.

    I’m certainly hoping to direct this musical in the provinces within the next year or so and am currently badgering various societies with a view to a production.

    Light and fluffy? No. Uplifitng? Perhaps not. Powerful and thought provoking? Most definitely.

    The musical has come of age.


  9. Mike – we object in the strongest terms to the tag “superficially facile”. We are facile all the way through to the core.

  10. Mike Morrow Says:

    Hello Andrew

    I apologise if I’ve caused offence that certainly wasn’t my intention and of course I’m happy to retract that particular phrase.

    However the core of my opinion is still that just as Sondheim showed a way forward for the last decades of the 20th century so Parade may lead to more adult-themed musicals in the opening years of the millennium.

    We still have the legacy of so many wonderful shows by past masters (too numerous to name here) that for today’s writers to attempt to emulate what has gone before would be not just folly but counter-productive. We need some new voices and new approaches.

    Whether Jason Robert Brown will build on his early promise is unclear (his other two shows are distinctly smaller in scale and scope) but in any event he has left us a masterpiece and for that we should be grateful.


  11. Cindi Says:

    Mike, I couldn’t have said it better myself. I did Parade in 2002, have never forgotten the experience, and would LOVE to do it – or at least see it – again.


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