Book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Aria Entertainment & Hope Mill Theatre
Hope Mill Theatre
13 May 2016 to 11 June 2016
It's an ambitious move: this brand new fringe theatre in an old mill in Ancoats has programmed a full production of this Jason Robert Brown musical from 1998, so far only previously produced professionally in the UK at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007 and Southwark Playhouse in 2011.
The theatre has paired up with Katy Lipson of Aria Entertainment, who has been behind a number of London musicals at smaller venues such as Southwark Playhouse, Greenwich Theatre and St James Studio, so it certainly means business. The result is pretty impressive for a regional fringe venue, but it would seem the theatre is aspiring to be seen as more than this.
Set in Atlanta, Georgia in 1913, the musical centres on the case of Leo Frank (Tom Lloyd), a Jewish pencil factory superintendent from Brooklyn. When 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan (Megan Ormiston) is raped and murdered, the police arrest Frank and black night watchman Newt Lee (Matt Mills), but they decide to focus on the Yankee Jew as, "hanging another nigger ain't enough this time. We gotta do better."
The police do a good job of bribing and intimidating witnesses to gain a conviction, and reporter Britt Craig (James Wolstenholme) is equally effective at turning public opinion against Frank, but his wife Lucille (Laura Harrison) keeps campaigning on his behalf, eventually getting the party-loving Governor Slaton (also James Wolstenholme) to take his job seriously for once, even if it won't be popular with the electorate.
It's an intriguing tale of racism and injustice with shades of To Kill A Mockingbird that draws an audience to indignantly sympathise with the powerless protagonist, despite him not being particularly likeable.
While there is an impressive and varied score and lyrics from Brown, Uhry's book tries to mix the domestic tale of the Franks' growing love and devotion with the trial and the political climate. It's all just too much, and the result is that the issues are dealt with superficially and many of the characters are just ciphers.
James Baker has a few odd staging choices, sometimes placing significant action in the middle or behind some of the audience, but the production scores highly on the musical side.
With a cast of 15 singing together in harmony and a live 10-piece band—in an old mill in Ancoats—the sound is terrific at times. Unfortunately it is let down a bit technically by a sound balance that has vocals from singers who don't really need mics in a place this size driven to distortion and very little other than drums and piano audible through the PA unless you are seated near to the band.
Lloyd is a very honest and dignified Leo Frank, with great support from Harrison as his wife. There are stand-out performances from Wolstenholme in three separate roles, but especially in his big number as Craig, "Real Big News", and Matt Mills as janitor and ex-con Jim Conley, whose "That's What He Said" that almost closes act I is a real showstopper.
This is a very bold experiment, bringing a full-scale production of a show that isn't easy to stage to a brand new small theatre off the beaten track for a 3-week run. While neither the show nor the production are without flaws, it's a spectacular and entertaining night at an impressive new theatre, hopefully the first of many.
Reviewer: David Chadderton