Neglecting its key issues, this production doesn’t merit leaving the library, advises MADDIE BROWN.
ADC Theatre, 7.45pm, Thursday 30th May- Saturday 8th June, £12/£10
Well, what a tale of two halves. I reached the interval and, listening to the audience member next to me ask, “So… is it about anti-Semitism then?”, they summed up my thoughts exactly. The Festival Players return with enthusiasm and vibrancy in this ten-day stint at the ADC. Yet there was a lack of refinement in this production – something that, considering the salient content of the musical, should have been more effectively assured.
Jason Robert Brown’s musical, based on a true story, is perhaps an unusual choice of show for the summer exam period. Set in early twentieth century Georgia, the musical explores anti-Semitism, racial prejudice, union vs. confederacy tension and mass hysteria through the experience of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory supervisor. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, he relocates to Atlanta, Georgia and finds himself accused of the murder of the thirteen-year old Mary Phagan.
Whilst entertaining, the production lacked the necessary focus on anti-Semitism, religion being the key characteristic distinguishing Frank from his social contemporaries. Throughout Act I, it is evident that this man has been accused with insufficient evidence and doesn’t receive a fair trial, but it is not made clear enough that the reason behind this is his religion. This was an issue that should have emerged as a heart-wrenching injustice at the centre of the production. Unfortunately, it failed to come through as prominently as it might have done.
Having said that, what did come through was the talent of the cast. Most notably, Steve Nicholson as Leo Frank gave a stellar performance, effectively differentiating himself from the rest of the company with his Brooklyn roots and Jewish background. He played Frank with an odd eccentricity that was at first difficult to warm to, but by the end of the play was incredibly endearing.
A particularly effective moment was his sudden character shift during the trial in Act I, where the audience sees Leo momentarily emerge as a womanising murderer. There was a distinct change in atmosphere which led us to question our own belief in his innocence. Director Suzanne Emerson cleverly underscores the scene with this sense of uncertainty, as witness accounts are retold one after another against Leo Frank. It began to emphasize the injustices embedded within the musical, laid open for all to see.
The relationship between Leo and his wife Lucille, played by Amy Castledine, remains undeveloped as the first Act comes to a close, though comes to fruition in the second when the couple unknowingly say their final goodbyes in a moment of tender intimacy. This leads to the subsequent scene which sees Frank fall into the hands of the ‘Knights of Mary Phagan’, ensuring a climatic ending to the performance.
By the end of Act II, we became emotionally attached to the Franks and thus the production reached a point of intensity when it needed to. It would, however, have been more successful had this intensity been felt by the audience at an earlier stage. Still, the compelling ending was rounded off with a succession of projected black and white photographs of the cast next to their real-life equivalent. This was a poignant reminder that, despite the often light-hearted nature of a musical, this was a real man who fell victim to societal bigotry and political convenience.
Act II makes the production worth seeing, but I’m not sure if this is enough to merit pushing revision to one side. Great for those pesky English and History freshers who don’t have the burden of exams, or those who are to make it through Tripos over the next week… But otherwise, stick to the library. Don’t let anything rain on your Parade.