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Review: MUSE's Parade

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Parade

Nell O'Grady

We begin on Memorial Day parade 1913 and end three years later on that same occasion. And in the space of a few hours, MUSE’s Parade presents its audience with a particularly poignant and sophisticated exploration of the dark impacts of prejudice and oppression in American civil society. In its opening, characters move about in seamless pleasure. Their period costumes weigh heavy, primed, everyday citizens greet each other with joy. The cast are grouped in various formations and dart about lyrically. They sing ‘The Old Red Hills of Home.’ Above them, confederate flags weigh heavy and a large wooden structure becomes the central meeting place for a variety of dramatic events to occur throughout the evening.

The legal injustices endured by a man who is innocent is at the core of this musical narrative. But this murder, the court case, its public reaction, becomes a springboard for the many injustices of early twentieth century America - racial, gendered, religious, political – to emerge and find their footing centre stage. Inspired by the true, unsolved death of thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan in the US state of Georgia in 1913, Parade follows the three-year long narrative of Leo Frank, a Jewish man accused of her murder. He is lynched in justice for her death and the crime is never solved.

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The musical explores rumour and misjudgement and general mistrust in a community, placing it in the Trump induced, distrustful and prejudiced nature of present day. Its relevancy is paramount. It explores rumour, corruption, miscommunication through the intense and moving performances and voices of the entire cast. It explores the role of the press in informing decisions, with suspender wearing, frantic journalists running about the stage with notepads begging for headlines in the particularly well-choreographed ‘Real Big News’ number, an ode to the danger of early twentieth century and current ‘fake news.’

This misinformation, circulated through racial, religious and gendered prejudices is a recurring and poignant theme in the musical. Leo Frank, a timid Jewish man, depicted with an effective nervy quality by Brendan Paul, is wrongly accused of murder. Lucille Frank, intricately and emotionally portrayed by Sarah Levins, is misrepresented, ignored even by her husband because of her status as a woman. The characters of Jim Conley (Naisa Lasalosi), Newt Lee (Samuel Asamoah), and Minnie McKnight (Stephanie Ampofo), are accused, instigated and mistreated because of the environment’s racial prejudices. While the lynch mob, all white, all male, take justice (and murder) into their own hands.

The incredible voices of the cast of MUSE centre Parade in its time and place. The arrangements of each work are moving and well portrayed by onstage performers and offstage musicians.  The piece is also about centring unheard voices and they do this with a poignant intensity, the cast recurrently creating walls of sound behind their leads.

An interesting tension is created between the genre of the musical with such a dark and foreboding narrative. Parade could be likened to the violence of period musicals like Oliver! or Sweeney Todd, but in this rendition, it becomes all the more relevant, because at its core it’s narrative is true.

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The set design creates cinematic sequences move about the stage seamlessly, as if watching a film. The recurring use of a large wooden frame, becomes the platform for murder, protest and, at its finale, a resting place for deceased Frank and Mary. While the intricate shadowed backdrops in Jim Conley’s (Naisa Laalosi) powerful and incredible performance of ‘Feel the Rain Fall’ are balanced with the intimate sparsity of Leo and Lucille Frank’s picnic and performance of ‘All the Wasted Time.’ 

It’s clear the involvement of students from a variety of faculties across the university allows the musical to go from strength to strength. With students from main campus as well as the Conservatorium of music, each element is meticulously scripted, presented and interconnected. From the musical arrangements, costuming, set design and performances comes a meaningful, moving and present representation of the consequences of mistake and misdeed.