It is not often that I get the chance to see a production that I have absolutely no idea about. Of course, there are musicals and plays that I have never seen, but I had at least heard of them before. However, this time around I admittedly had never heard of the musical before. Soundworks Productions latest offering is a non-replica version of Parade.
With original book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, co-conceived and originally directed on Broadway by Harold Prince, Parade makes its way to Melbourne with a full Australian company.
With Producer and Musical Director Benjamin Samuel, along with Director Mark Taylor at the helm, Parade is a re-telling of an historical event that I was completely oblivious to. Set in the deep south of America in Atlanta Georgia, Parade follows the story and subsequent trial of a heinous act of violence against a young girl known as Little Mary Phagan. Superintendent of the factory, a Jewish man, Leo Frank, is accused of the crime. Passionately proclaiming his innocence, Frank seeks to clear his name. But the angry, racist, and gang-like society of Atlanta do everything in their power to ensure Frank pays for what he supposedly did.
The cast of Parade are absolutely phenomenal. Aaron Robuck and Montana Sharp as Leo Frank and Lucille Frank respectively, work extremely well together as husband and wife. I could feel the anger, frustration, and disbelief in Robuck’s portrayal of Leo Frank. Not only does Robuck have the acting chops, Robuck has an incredible vocal performance to back it up.
One of my favourite moments of his would have to be the court-room scene where Robuck puts on an almost comical performance as the witnesses testify against him. Montana Sharp is equally as fantastic vocally, with a standout solo in the second act that blew me away. Their powers combine also create on stage chemistry to the point where you really believe in their story and that they are a bickering but deeply loving married couple.
The ensemble cast are all amazing in their respective roles, with many of them taking on dual characters. Sophie Loughran as Mrs Phagan and Sally Slaton effortlessly switches between a grief-stricken mother to a chipper hostess and wife to a suave Governor Slaton played Nic Davey-Greene. Samuel Skuthorp as the dirty reporter Britt Craig and Officer Ivey had me wanting to yell out in protest as both his characters ‘gathered evidence’, and his musical performance in ‘Big News’ was great. James Nation-Ingle as local prosecutor Hugh Dorsey and prison guard Mr. Peavey. Whilst the guard isn’t a dislikable character, Dorsey most certainly is and Nation-Ingle is perfect in both roles.
If I had to pick one, there was a standout that completely blew me away, Guillaume Gentil as Jim Conley. Not only does Gentil have the acting capability for such a role, but he has some of the most amazing vocals I have heard on stage in a while. All three of his musical numbers had me cheering louder and louder each time the song reached its conclusion.
But there was one particular number that stood out the most; ‘Blues: Feel the Rain Fall’ is by far one of the best songs in the whole show. Not only due to Gentil’s incredible soulful vocals, but because of the production’s the use of the Chapel off Chapel space. As Gentil slowly mad his way out onto the stage, chains shackled to his leg, the rest of the company (who were out of sight) stomped their feet, shouted, and banged on the scaffolding that hold up the seats within the theatre. This genius directorial choice by Mark Taylor would have to be one of the most effective things I have experienced in live theatre for a very long time. Both vocally and physically, it shook me in my seat.
The sound and lighting by David Barrell and Sidney Younger were great. But I have only one criticism, the choice of bright flood lights flashing and blaring directly into the audience, whilst it added drama and tension to the performance, it was rather consistently blinding. I found myself ducking my gaze to shield my eyes. Harry Gill on multiple duties of Set, Props and Costume Design not only did an incredible job with the small space the Chapel stage has to offer but nailed it with the costuming.
The aforementioned small stage can’t be an easy one to work with. Whether you have one or two performers on stage, or the entire company, it can’t be easy to keep out of each others way. This is where Choreographer Freya List’s role is just as important as the principal cast. Whilst there isn’t much dancing that occurs, the movements the cast make are not only meticulously planned to fit in the space, they add much needed drama, flow, and context to the story that is unfolding on stage.
Having not known anything about Parade prior, the musical does a fantastic job at setting the scene and apprising the audience as to where and when this story is set. Even with the minimalistic staging, I was never lost and knew exactly where the story was supposed to be. In such a small space, the entire cast and creative team have done an impeccable job of fitting what I can only assume to be a potentially big stage musical production into a small and intimate setting. Having now seen several shows with Mark Taylor at the helm, each one of them has been just as good as the one that preceded it and Parade is no exception.
Parade is more than just a musical and a retelling of actual events. It is a history lesson in how society can quickly be influenced by the people that are supposed to lead them. That the power of the media can sway anyone in to creating a conviction in their mind before a trial even takes place. It is a reminder that even today, false information and extremist values can ignite a dangerous ideology that threatens freedom of speech and presumption of innocence. A reality that sadly rings true today just as strongly as it did back then.
I am so thankful for the opportunity to experience Parade. It is such an incredible independent production that must be seen by those who love musicals, support local productions, and enjoy the magic and artistry of live theatre. This production of Parade is a triumph for Soundworks Productions and all involved. Parade is one history lesson you do not want to miss!
With an extremely limited season running until the 6th of August at Melbourne’s Chapel off Chapel, your chance to see Soundworks Productions’ Parade is already running out!
For more information and ticketing, including an Auslan Interpreted performance, please visit:
Photography by Matthew Chen.