Date 5th June 2013
Society Festival Players
Venue ADC Theatre Cambridge
Type of Production Musical
Director Suzanne Emerson
Musical Director Brian Thomas
Choreographer Kirsty Smith


Author: Julie Petrucci

Once again The Festival Players took a chance on a modern little-known musical for a ten-day run at the ADC. Set during the Memorial Day Parade (hence the title) in Atlanta in 1914, Robert Brown’s musical, based on a true story, is a strange subject-matter in my opinion.   It is the story of the injustice done to Leo Frank who was falsely accused of the murder of a young girl. This happened 100 years ago in Georgia, a place where prejudice, political dishonesty and vigilantism ruled. 

Frank becomes the classic scapegoat. He has actually committed the triple sin of being an outsider, a Jew and perhaps most heinously, a Yankee New Yorker. Shy, hard working and upright, Frank is clearly innocent but his frame up for the murder becomes a necessary expedient for the ambitious D.A. Dorsey.  What follows is the total injustice of his arrest and sham court trial, his subsequent imprisonment and sentence of death. While the whole city rapidly turns against him, he is supported by his devoted wife Lucille who campaigns to have him set free. Whilst the Franks hold on to hope of a retrial, events overtake her efforts and the show moves rapidly to its shocking conclusion.

Essential to the success of this show has to be the two central performancers. 

Steve Nicholson as the fragile bespectacled Leo Frank gave a stella performance, and one which could not be bettered in my opinion.  He created a totally believable character one which we all warmed to as we got to know him. He showed how versatile he is when in the trial scene he put doubts in our minds when in one song he appeared to come over as a womanising murderer.  

Amy Castledine as his wife Lucille matched Nicholson’s performance, again creating a very believable character which grew stronger as she fought to bring justice to her imprisoned husband. She has a superb voice and was pitch-perfect.  There was a lovely tender scene between the two in the prison when they thought victory was in sight but, as it turned out, it was their final goodbye.

Alan Hay as Governor John Slaton and Jonathan Padley as Hugh Dorsey both gave incredibly strong performances.  I also much enjoyed Cat Nicol’s emotive performance as Mrs Phagan young Mary’s mother; Mark McCormack as Mary’s would-be boyfriend Frankie Epps and Jamie Maguire as the menacing Jim Conley.

The Ensemble players must be congratulated on their total involvement and concentration throughout.  Modern musicals are not content with just having good singers there is also a requirement these days for those singers to act and act well. The involvement of the ensemble in this show is paramount and whilst there was not too much call for fancy footwork Choreographer Kirsty Smith provided some well judged and interesting movement around the stage which was smoothly executed. The court scene was excellent and there were some wonderful stage freezes which had to be held for minutes at a time and this was done with great skill.  The off-stage backing singing, the rhythmic clapping for the chain gang and the ‘Confederate’ drumming was superb adding much to the whole.  

I am not up on costumes in the early 1900s in the American Deep South but they all looked good to me and as they were under the auspices of the talented Liz Milway and her team I am sure they were absolutely authentic.  Add to this the most excellent work of the musicians under the directorship of Brian ‘Tommy’ Thomas, and the skillful lighting design of Ed Hopkins you can tell there was little to criticise technically or otherwise with this production.

 This is not an all singing all dancing show by any means, it is a dark disturbing piece. Director Suzanne Emerson had just the right touch though, keeping up the pace throughout and building the tension well. By the end of act one the audience were already gripped and the tension built even higher throughout act two to the dreadful climatic scene as Frank fell into the hands of the ‘Knights of Mary Phagan’.  

Just before the curtain call photographs of the actors and their real life counterparts were flashed up which was a reminder that this is a true story about injustice and bigotry.  All singing and all dancing it may not have been, but it was certainly powerful, gripping and thought provoking.  Congratulations to all involved with this stunning evening of theatre: one which will be a talking point for a long time to come.