Book by Alfred Uhry, Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, Co-conceived by Harold Prince
Directed and choreographed by: Rob Ashford
Venue: Donmar Warehouse
Date: Wednesday 24th October 2007
This was a marvellous experience – the first time I’d seen a musical in the intimate space that is the Donmar. I had no idea how they would fit it all in, but it worked superbly. The set was basically a wooden frame with a raised platform at the back and stairs on the right up to a wooden balcony which could be the office of the factory, a fishing perch by a stream, etc. Chairs and tables were brought on as needed.
The story concerns a real life event in Atlanta, Georgia back in 1913-15. A teenage girl was found murdered in the basement of a factory, and the factory manager, a white Jew from New York, was accused, tried and convicted for her murder, despite the amazingly dubious testimony from the locals, who had been whipped into a frenzy of racist loathing and desire for revenge by the combined efforts of the press, the politicians and the clergy. It’s a powerful story, and one of the amazing things about this production is the way it manages to make us laugh at things that are pretty dark. On more than one occasion I found myself laughing at something and wondering if I really should be. For example, the first song in the second half is a wonderful number where two black characters, Angela and Riley, get to put their point of view about the whole furore. They’re clearing the table after the governor and his wife have finished breakfast, and as they do, they’re commenting on how different it would be if a black man had been convicted, or if a black girl had been killed. Comments about how often you see black men hanging from trees didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the energy and humour of the song, yet the images are shocking, and the contradiction seems to underscore that fact. I feel more moved now than when I was watching it, and maybe that’s the intention. We weren’t beaten over the head about the moral issues, but they snuck in while we weren’t looking and took up permanent residence. Sadly, we weren’t allowed to call for encores, or this number would have worn out the actors before it wore us out.
As would a number of other routines. The dancing was fast and furious at times, though not so much when the stage was packed, obviously, and the standard seemed pretty high to me. I loved the party scene where the governor is stepping out (in the dancing sense) with every pretty girl he can get his hands on, and I especially liked his grimace as he realised he wasn’t as young as he used to be.
The singing was also excellent. Malinda Parris and Shaun Escoffery (Angela and Riley) were particularly good, with Shaun’s voice resonating beautifully and powerfully as he sang a blues number later, on the chain gang. I also felt Bertie Carvel gave an excellent performance as Leo Frank, the Jewish New Yorker who felt like a fish out of water in the South. He was totally confused by the way the local Jews seemed to do things the southern way, rather than the Jewish way. His discomfort was clear to see, and well expressed in some witty song lyrics. It explained a lot of his behaviour around southern folk, and why he acted so strangely. It was bound to make them suspicious anyway, although the pressure was on very early for a quick resolution, and something more special than just hanging another “nigra”.
The most moving part for me was the scene between Leo and his wife, Lucille, in the prison. With his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, Leo’s been moved to a secret location to prevent public disorder, and gets a chance to see his wife. He’s learned a lot about what really matters, and tells her in a very moving song about how much she means to him. I cried. After that, it’s an emotional rollercoaster, as hooded men snatch Leo from his cell and take him away to lynch him. Paradoxically, they’re prepared to let him live out his life in prison if he confesses and repents, but determined to hang him if he continues to claim he’s innocent. Wonky thinking, if you ask me, but then nobody did. There’s a final scene where the journalist gives Lucille Leo’s wedding ring, and then we’re into the finale and a standing ovation for this magnificent company – well deserved. I’m looking forward to getting the cast recording.
The only thing that didn’t quite gel with me was the recurrent theme of the old soldier and his erstwhile girlfriend who was willing to wait for him while he went off to the Civil War. I understood the scene at the start to be establishing the romantic patriotism of these folk, and their determination to defend their state at all costs during the war (even though they did, in fact, lose), but I wasn’t so clear about the other times these characters reappeared during the play. I couldn’t see what they were meant to represent then.
However, that’s only a minor point, and overall the intelligence and wit of this musical was good to see. Reminiscent of Sondheim, the music has themes which echo and repeat, building up complex layers of meaning as different characters take the tune or lines and use them in a different way. “Go on, go on, go on, go on” is one example, used by Mary Phagan and Frankie Epps early on as we find out just how precocious thirteen year old Mary (the murder victim) actually is, and used again during Angela and Riley’s song. There’s also an amazing sequence as Leo acts out the lecherous behaviour the girls are accusing him of at his trial, another brilliant performance from Bertie Carvel. If only this was sort of thing that packed ‘em in in the West End. Ah well.
© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me