The University of Melbourne Music Theatre Association’s (UMMTA) uncanny professionalism strikes once more in Parade as they deliver a double punch of authentic, gut-wrenching history neatly nestled amongst the razzmatazz fair audiences have come to expect of musical theatre.
Parade sets the true story of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn-raised Jew living in Georgia, against a cacophony of sound (otherwise known as Jason Robert Brown’s ingenious score) as it details the injustices of his 1913 trail and subsequent conviction in the murder of thirteen-year-old girl, Mary Phagan. To witness Parade for the first time, when considering both its historical origin and how it has been so eloquently, expertly reincarnated by UMMTA, is something to behold. The show is certainly a risk on the company’s behalf; boasting a run time of almost three hours, swelled with dark, draining subject matter, blasting a convoluted score from a somewhat controversial composer and as the show is well known as a bit of a relative flop on Broadway. For this risk I commend UMMTA, as their company is the one of the few spaces a production like Parade can not only survive, but thrive – as proven by my astonishment at being surrounding but a completely full house, on a dreary Wednesday night, right before mid-semester break!
As aforementioned, UMMTA always provides some of the most-outstanding work on campus, however three elements of Parade stand out as particularly striking to me. The first being the acting overall; every member of both the principle and ensemble casts impress the audience with beautifully thought out, timely line delivery and honestly impeccable accents. The Southern American drawl, although physiologically easier for people with Australian accents to master (all to do with the soft-palate) is simply a sound we are rarely exposed to and as such, I always find it so refreshing to hear it not only being imitated, but being imitated extremely well.
Next up, the wealth of vocal talent simply cannot be ignored. I’ve rarely seen a show so well cast vocally, that the voices dually blend perfectly at moments to create stunningly complex harmonies, yet are also so unique and distinctly heard when listening with a keen ear.
Last but certainly not least, lighting designer, Thomas O’Sullivan and assistant lighting designer Iris Lee, deserve every ounce of praise possible for their impeccably timed and simply delicious kaleidoscope of colourful bliss. You know you have achieved something phenomenal as a lighting designer when I can go so far as to say the lighting may do more than simply light the performers but rather perhaps upstage them, more than once, in this production.
Although all of the performances are incredibly strong, special mentions must go to Stephen Amos as Leo Frank, who brings a remarkable, endearing quality to the character through his almost masterful use of space and body as well as of course his flawless vocal performance. Robert Campbell as Old Soldier/Judge Roan is another stand out, shocking audiences from the very first number with one of the cleanest, clearest genuine bass ranges I think I’ve ever heard. There is simply something about Flynn Smeaton’s portrayal of Governor Slaton/MacDaniel that manages to epitomize ‘the south’, whether it be through his velvet smooth, wonderfully drawled voice or the clear connection he has to his body as an actor – most obviously observable during his gorgeous dance break in ‘Pretty Music’. Perhaps surprisingly I have one more name on my list, Selena Nicastri as Essie commands constant attention during ensemble numbers, as both her precense and her crystal clear voice cut above the sometimes chaotic staging and as such her strength as an ensemble member must be acknowledged.
Musical Director Mathew White, and the entire orchestra for that matter truly deserve literally anything they think will compensate them for traversing the utter insanity that is Jason Robert Brown’s composition so successfully.
Unfortunately, I have a repeat offender qualm which, although I don’t think is UMMTA’s fault, it is one which continues to happen in the Union House Venue so I think it important to draw attention to it. Sound is a major issue, with a microphone left on backstage, crackling on stage and generally not being able to hear the actors particularly well, especially considering the thickness of their wonderful southern drawls.
Overall, I would go so far as to say UMMTA’s Parade was more than a mere musical, but rather an experience which I’m sure every audience member will cherish for many years to come.
UMMTA’s production of Parade ran from 12 – 18 April in the Union Theatre.