Billericay Operatic Society at Brentwood Theatre
Ethnic tensions, trial by media, a true story. Jason Robert Brown's first Broadway musical is richly, if unmemorably scored, with a compelling book by Alfred [Driving Miss Daisy] Uhry.
Wayne Carpenter directed a powerful production for Billericay, as well as giving a nuanced performance as Leo Franks, a Jew out of his element in the Deep South of a hundred years ago.
Using a multi-level setting, and a large cast, the story was tautly told, though there was still some tension lost in silent darkness.
Excellent work from the principal players. No mean feat to make the score – a patchwork of folk, anthem, vaudeville and more – sound better than it is. Under the Musical Direction of Ian Southgate, Nik Graham did, as the drunken janitor and star witness, and Bob Southgate as the smooth-talking prosecutor. Impressive work too from Peter Brown as the “Georgian” hack, Fiona Whittaker as Frank's wife, mousy at first, feisty in his defence, and Gail Carpenter as the Governor's Lady and Minnie, the family cook.
So encouraging to see so many talented young performers on stage; notably Nicole Clements as the young victim – she was the right age, and had a lovely pure voice, – and Simon Johnson as the young Confederate soldier who has to start the whole show with a demanding solo – The Old Red Hills of Home.
The staging set big production pieces – the mob, Memorial Day, broadsheets brilliantly used - against lonely protagonists – the fantasy picnic, Frank's soliloquies – nowhere more successfully than the ending, with Leo poignantly isolated in his office.
Had this been fiction, Franks would have been reprieved at the last moment, and the real murderer exposed - maybe rabid bigot Watson [Mark Clements]. But, tragically, real life is not so tidy, and although Franks was eventually pardoned, by that time he'd been dead 70 years, hanged by a lynch mob back in Marietta.
Mary Redman joined me on the Press Bench ...
Mary Redman joined me on the Press Bench ...
Subtitling an off-Broadway show as An American Musical Masterpiece is giving a bit of a hostage to fortune as it were and challenging to boot. On the other hand with a book by the acclaimed Alfred Uhry it had a pretty good pedigree. The result, in the lively hands of Billericay Operatic, was a show that entertained while informing and moving its audiences.
It started with an equally big challenge for lanky teenager Simon Johnson, his build contrasting with his powerful, beautiful singing voice, and set the drama in motion.
It's century-old story of an outsider, hounded by the tabloid press, paying with his life for being an alien in a backward part of the Deep South of America. A story of trumped up murder charges and ignorance which, unfortunately, still exists world wide.
Wayne Carpenter carried off with panache the difficult, demanding roles of director of the very large cast and leading actor. As Leo Frank, mild mannered accountant his singing voice also stood him in good stead while his acting made him believable in his bewilderment. Fiona Whittaker as his initially meek yet later firecracker of a wife seeking justice for her husband, used her beautiful singing voice to add to the drama affecting them both.
With such a very large cast the excellent support given by many of the cast included Nik Graham as the lying factory worker framing Leo; Brian Plumb as the arrogant Governor; Bob Southgate using his powerful singing voice to advantage as the lawyer determined to convict and hang Leo; Peter Brown as the snake-like tabloid journalist; Cheryl Johnson as the grief-stricken mother of a murdered girl. We are accustomed to Gail Carpenter using her physical form to create showy roles but here as the shrunken, lying Minola McKnight she was virtually unrecognisable by contrast with her other role as the flamboyant Governor's wife.
A special word of praise for the other teenagers in the cast such as Matthew Carpenter's assured, well sung Frankie Epps and Nicolle Clements as the charming young victim Mary Phagan.
The set was a useful multilevel series of acting areas put to especially chilling use at the end of the show. There were drawbacks including the effective costuming being let down by a lack of period corsetry framing the dresses. The over enthusiastic use of unnecessary blackouts between many scenes slowed the action in a very long show.
Music, in the safe hands of Ian Southgate's band was not catchy, yet a pleasing, relevant use of traditional airs with dramatic, Sondheimesque chords creating dark atmosphere.
It was what the profession calls a big sing and I'm very pleased to have seen it.