Vivo D’Arte set themselves quite the challenge in producing Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s Parade. The double Tony Award winning musical is based on a deeply harrowing true story and requires sensitivity in the staging, and a cast with the passion and commitment to fully explore the many layers of the story. If that wasn’t challenging enough, director Dan Cowtan has chosen not to stage it in a theatre, but in the world’s oldest working papermill; Frogmore in Hemel Hempstead.
Given the location and set up, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Then, as the Young Soldier, Lawrence Smith, opened the show with a beautifully tender ‘Old Red Hills of Home’, with the audience huddled together under a sea of confederate flags, it became clear this was to be an extraordinary experience.
On Memorial Day 1913, Leo Frank is falsely arrested for the rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old employee of the factory where Frank is Superintendent. Although the evidence is entirely circumstantial, the media creates a frenzy which emboldens a sense of anti-Semitism in the local community, and Frank is found guilty of the crime.
This Parade is an entirely immersive production, whereby the audience move from scene to scene, guided by the cast who remain resolutely in character, even when they need to hurry some of the more lackadaisical audience members along. I was guided to “a good seat” at Leo Frank’s trial by Mrs Phagan (Elise Allanson), was led to the basement, where Mary’s body was found, by Newt Lee (Jacob Yolland), and stood right beside Luther Z Rosser (Ross Hadley) at the Governors Ball.
You cannot help be swept up in the realism of it all, and here’s the real coup de grâce – you completely forget this is a theatrical production; Jason Robert Brown’s hauntingly beautiful score floats along with you, no matter where you are inside or outside the building. For the most part, the action is continuing as you move through the mill yet, every cue is hit absolutely on time. From a technical standpoint, this is a masterpiece.