Parade tells the story of Leo Frank, a factory manager who in 1913 was accused of raping and murdering a thirteen year old girl.  The book by Alfred Uhry and music by Broadway legend Jason Robert Brown sets a rather ugly story against a truly beautiful score. It’s a heavy piece with only an occasional smattering of dark comedy. It’s a lot to get through.  New kids on the block, The Collective theatre company, have taken a bold approach to a challenging piece and have delivered a show that audiences will adore.

The show is essentially a courtroom drama, but it dips in and out of other locations and settings as the story dictates.   I can understand the appeal of the Fortyfivedownstairs venue, with it’s rustic shabby chic/off, off Broadway atmosphere and I applaud the courageous staging, placing the audience at both sides of the space and allowing the action to take place in the middle. However, as action frequently played out at extreme ends of the stage, I felt as though I was watching a tennis match.   Also distracting was my awareness of the audience.  Studying audience members on the other side of the space was hard to avoid.  There were also multiple obstructions, including large columns and poorly raked seating (flaws of the venue which is not a purpose built theatre), that served to obscure my view and prevent me from immersing myself in the action.

It’s not until the show progresses to the courtroom scene, halfway through act one, that the brilliance of this staging comes into its own.  The audience, flanking either side of the stage, suddenly become jurors and the actors use this unexpected dynamic to their advantage.  

Director James Cutler has a lot to be proud of.  Not only has he assembled an brilliant cast for this new theatre company, he has also demonstrated his mastery of blocking.  In spite of the fact that he had two audiences to play to on either side of the auditorium, he cleverly positioned actors in such a way that the staging felt neither awkward, nor contrived.   Utilizing the entire space to an absolute maximum, including placing actors in the audience seats, he managed to maintain the flow of the piece. While a heavy book hampered the pace, his innovative use of the stage and the actors kept the drama moving and created plenty of visual interest.  Cutler has also thought through the venue’s limitations, so while obstructions and backs to audience are plentiful, they never last for long and add to the avant-garde nature of the show.

Lighting Design by Jason Bovaird was excellent.  He did a lot with a little, enhancing the space, carrying on the geometric blocking from above, setting clearly defined spaces when required and adding warmth or cold as part of the overall narrative.  Costumes by Nerissa Saville are well researched and fit for purpose, but lack creative brilliance and are occasionally sloppy in execution. 

Sets by Alexandra Hiller were minimal, perhaps too much so.  A well constructed and grand southern oak tree at one end of the theatre was clumsily paired with a tiny confederate flag draped over a large white cyc at the other.  As such, the set felt unimaginative and underdone.  Incidental pieces were used well and moved on and off with relative grace and ease.

Parade is clearly a piece that that actors absolutely love to be a part of, as it offers plenty of dramatic action, not just for the leads, but for the entire ensemble. This collective powerhouse of actors combine to deliver some undeniably electric musical moments.  It’s a credit to the cast that their passion and dedication to their individual roles was abundantly apparent throughout and, as such, they all dug deep to deliver convincing performances across the board.   No weak links here at all.

Laura Fitzpatrick gave a powerful, yet tender performance in the role of Lucille Frank.  As the driving force behind overturning her husband’s conviction, her unwavering commitment to her role, combined with highly refined stagecraft, including a flawless southern accent and a distinct ability to balance Leo’s frenetic anxiety, made for a impressive performance.  Her grace and poise carried through to the score, resisting temptation to sacrifice character for a Broadway belt.

With sheer grit and determination, Luigi Lucente, in the role of Leo Frank, ploughed through an intense role, building to a pleasing crescendo at just the right time. It’s a role that’s easily overplayed, however Luigi delivered a measured, well-constructed and soulful performance.  His capability as an actor knows no bounds and his attractive voice was well suited to the role.

Stand out performances by Cameron MacDonald and Tod Strike steal the show, which is no mean feat, considering the esteemed company they’re in.  The two seasoned performers, each with appealing voices, switch between characters seamlessly, holding court with multiple roles and commanding attention whenever they appeared.  Not only did they play off each other exceptionally well, they also maintained consistency in their clearly defined individual characters.  Injecting charm and charisma, they were a joy to watch.

Musical Director Cameron Thomas led an accomplished orchestra. Situated at one end of the stage, their performance was commendable in spite of sound balance issues.  JRB scores are always challenging for orchestra and cast, but this score was executed seamlessly. Difficult harmonies were never a problem. Some diction was imprecise on occasion, however the storyline was always clear and the intention obvious.  

The Collective have cemented themselves as an innovative and genuinely exciting company with a clear purpose and sense of creative direction.   Unafraid to take risks and bold in execution, this newcomer will be a favorite amongst theatrical diehards and is a welcome addition to the Melbourne theatre scene.