first night

Parade

Kate Barton reviews Feather Theatre Company's ambitious Assembly Rooms debut.

Feather Theatre Company’s bold choice of Parade should be commended on many levels. Telling the true and tragic story of Leo Frank, the play follows his court trial and his subsequent indictment for the murder of 14-year-old Mary Phagan. A musical exploring racism, anti-Semitism, murder and rape, it is therefore inevitable that any theatre company wishing to put on the show will find it difficult to sensitively convey this. Although there were moments of brilliance in the production, these were perhaps marred by a lack of professionalism throughout.

Lewis Martin’s creative vision was sophisticated yet at times inconsistent. Moments of unique creative ideas were abundant. However, often these lacked delivery. Stand out moments included the number “Factory Girls / Come Up to My Office” where the tech team cleverly used lighting to differentiate from the reality of the trial and the lies spread by Hugh Dorsey. The use of the puppetry-like choreography to break the naturalism of the piece worked effectively in this song and grasped the audience’s attention. The use of level staging worked well to transform the Assembly Rooms to an interesting space. Using this levelling allowed Martin to explore different locations within the story while continuing pace. However, these levels drastically limited space, which was apparent with such a large cast, making ensemble scenes appear cumbersome, overcrowded and distracting at times. That said, Martin should be congratulated for pulling off the dramatic peak of Act 2, a pivotal moment in the plot, which could so easily have been done badly.

During this exceptionally busy time of year, the musical director Ross Norman should be applauded for dealing with both a large cast and sourcing a live band. The musicality of Jason Robert Brown’s score can prove difficult, given its complexity. Especially during ensemble numbers, Norman should be congratulated for teaching these harmonies, which were confident and powerful when the whole ensemble was on stage. The constant switching of dialogue and singing persists throughout the show and can be a nightmare for both a director and musical director. This balance has to be more finely tuned in the next show, as at times pace suffered when this transition occurred. Furthermore, diction, through the use of the strong Southern U.S. accent, was lacking at timesespecially during chorus numbers where the meaning of songs struggled to come across over the power of the band.

Matthew Green as Leo Frank had the most demanding role, given Leo’s emotional rollercoaster and transformation throughout the show. The vulnerability of Leo was portrayed exceptionally well through his characterisation, creating a believable and helpless man in a horrific situation. Green’s vocals were flawless and truly refreshing to hear. Lotte Jones captured the strong and sassy Lucille Frank, again bringing much needed naturalism to this production. The challenging Southern accent required was best captured by Jones, adding to the believability of the play’s setting. However, my favourite moments are undoubtedly the interaction between Green and Jones, especially in the number “All The Wasted Time.” The vocal ability and tonality of these two set them head and shoulders above the rest of the cast.

The supporting cast did well in telling the individual stories of these real characters. Emily Germon (Mary Phagan) did a wonderful job of portraying the young, innocent Mary. She took to the role with enthusiasm and thoroughly consistent characterisation of a child. Jake Goldman’s charisma as the vindictive prosecutor Hugh Dorsey shone through with his excellent stage presence and singing ability. There were, however, pitching problems with some of the supporting cast who struggled to cope with the demanding score.

Chorus numbers unfailingly brought energy to scenes, but there were many moments where the stage was extremely overcrowded, which was disruptive. Despite the production requiring limited choreography and the energy the chorus brought to the stage, the routines themselves were underwhelming and not entirely engaging. The chorus number during “Pretty Music”, for instance, felt unrehearsed and too basic while the opening minute of “Feel The Rain Fall” was bizarre and didn’t fit with the concept of the song. However, this was salvaged by Emmanuel Adeagbo’s standout vocal performance. Given his incredible range, I feel that he can push the confidence level up to fever pitch for his final night.

A classic issue for the first night for any musical theatre production is sound levels and microphones, and unfortunately Parade was no exception. This was frustrating for an audience member to hear, especially given hard-to hear lyrics and a lack of diction. Parade has fallen into an issue currently plaguing DST- the lack of both  technicians and awareness of the time needed to prepare for a musical on this scale. That said, the lighting rig was ambitious and used creatively.

A musical like Parade needs to attacked with everything you have. It demands passion, commitment, pace and an unparalleled ferocity in its execution. For Feather Theatre Company to continue to up their game, this production requires an injection of pace and more commitment from the actors to attack their lines with confidence. Although not without its faults, this was an ambitious project and on the whole well performed. Perhaps more theatre companies should learn from Feather Theatre; by taking on riskier shows like Parade, student theatre in Durham could benefit from more dynamism and vibrancy.

5 March 2016

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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