Telling his client Leo Frank that he's to be indicted for the murder of a 14-year-old girl, defense attorney Rosser points up the prosecution's problem: "Dorsey's got nothing but circumstantial evidence no matter how big a show he puts on."

Telling his client Leo Frank that he’s to be indicted for the murder of a 14-year-old girl, defense attorney Rosser points up the prosecution’s problem: “Dorsey’s got nothing but circumstantial evidence no matter how big a show he puts on.” That, in a nutshell, is “Parade”: the true story of vicious prejudice leading to a notorious miscarriage of justice turned into one helluva song ‘n’ dance. But then debuting choreographer-turned-director Rob Ashford came along. Proving again that the best things come in small packages, his pared-down, blistering production is, in every possible sense, a thriller.

Ashford knows this material inside-out. He was assistant choreographer and dance captain on Harold Prince’s original production, which ran for just 84 perfs. Yet thoughts that he might be replicating that staging are banished by the statistics. Where Prince marshaled 37 actors and a band of 21 in Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, Ashford has 15 actors and nine musicians in the 250-seat Donmar Warehouse.

Designer Christopher Oram builds on the piece’s metaphor of dominance and the (mis)use of power by constructing a balcony along the back wall, with its balustrade joining that of the upper seating gallery. This creates an additional level from which actors can dictate to the action below and turns the square auditorium into an enveloping courtroom, with auds glued to the action on three sides.

Oram’s deliberately unshowy period costumes define the 1913-15 setting, but the rest of his strikingly spare design is dedicated to simplicity of storytelling. This quasi-Jewish “In the Heat of the Night” meets “The Crucible” requires numerous locations, conjured here not by literal representation but by Neil Austin’s career-best lighting.

Austin’s consummate control of the emotional temperature takes auds from the prickly heat of dusty yellow sunny days to the lacerating chill of a nighttime hanging. He uses haze like a sculptor, shooting light through it from different angles to carve out a wealth of contrasting spaces from governor’s mansion to graveyard, from a riverside idyll to a bald prison cell.

Like every element in the production, the lighting enhances the flow. Following Ashford’s lead, book writer Alfred Uhry and composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown have refashioned and strengthened their material, trimming transitions to step up the pace.

The journalists’ first song, “Big News,” has been cut, as has “People of Atlanta,” which has been replaced by a new song for evangelical Tom Watson called “Hammer of Justice.” Women’s roles have been augmented by replacing testimony from nightwatchman Newt Lee with that of Minnie, the Franks’ maid.

The biggest single change is the axing of Judge Roan’s song “Letter to the Governor.” He now has “The Glory,” a beautiful duet with off-duty prosecutor Dorsey. They sit barefoot on the balcony, armed with fishing rods, musing nostalgically: “Sun on your back/Neck turning’ pink/World movin’ slow so you know what to think.”

Their beautifully harmonized yearnings are all the more remarkable considering that Roan (Steven Page) is an opera baritone who has sung Don Giovanni, while Dorsey is played by Mark Bonnar, who delivers a superbly focused, quiet knockout of a performance in his musical-theater debut. Bonnar’s engrossing strength, and that of the rest of the immaculate cast, stems from restraint.

Emotions run high in “Parade.” Some productions stagger from one overmodulated passage of hysteria and sentiment to another. Ashford, however, backpedals. Rather than put the chain-gang onstage for easy sympathy, Ashford places them offstage, heard but not seen. Their vengeful voices fill the auditorium, but the focus is strictly on duplicitous Conley, a riveting performance of easeful swagger from Shaun Escoffery.

Similarly, instead of going for the jugular with “My Child Will Forgive Me,” the lament of the murdered child’s mother, Ashford keeps tension high by having Dorsey prowl continuously round the court. In Bonnar’s hands, Dorsey never stops thinking.

It’s that degree of truthful observation that charges up the show. Ashford not only obtains unusually detailed perfs from the actors, nearly all of whom are doubling up, he also manages to sustain their energy. Applause breaks are limited to the curtain at the end of each act, making transitions between dialogue and song utterly seamless. This is aided by a first-rate sound design.

The gruesome cakewalk at the end of act one, with bewildered Leo and Lucille hoisted aloft on chairs in a whirligig of distortion, is one of few moments in which Ashford allows auds to see a choreographer at work. The rest of the time, most of all whenever the two leads are onstage, this production feels like genuine drama.

Lara Pulver calmly exudes a growing sense of resolve while resisting the clenched-fist cliches of the determined wife. Her understatement pays dividends, not least in the major emotional climax in which she and Leo sing exultantly to the point of physical ecstasy.

As Leo, Bertie Carvel is the show’s magnetic still center. Folding his spectacles meticulously, he is both precise and gauche. He shows Leo’s Jewish neuroticism without ever approaching Woody Allen overdrive. He indicates outsider status yet never pleads for sympathy. When, at the climax of his trial, he floats the heartfelt phrase “I stand before you now/Incredibly afraid,” the rapt silence in the auditorium is remarkable.

Ashford cannot disguise the fact that “Parade” sometimes dips into earnestness. Yet with the action played rather than displayed, auds are constantly drawn in. This is not a revival — it’s a reinvigoration.

Parade

Donmar Warehouse; 249 seats; £32.50 $66 top

Production

A Donmar Warehouse presentation of a musical in two acts with book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, co-conceived by Harold Prince. Directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford. Musical direction, Thomas Murray.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Christopher Oram; lighting, Neil Austin; sound, Terry Jardine, Nick Lidster for Autograph; orchestrations, David Cullen; production stage manager, Dominic Fraser. Opened, reviewed Sept. 24, 2007. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast

Leo Frank - Bertie Carvel Lucille - Lara Pulver Hugh Dorsey - Mark Bonnar Newt Lee, Jim Conley - Shaun Escoffery Old Soldier, Judge - Steven Page Young Soldier, Frankie - Stuart Matthew Price Governor Slaton, Britt Craig - Gary Milner Lila, Mary Phagan - Jayne Wisener Mrs. Phagan, Sally Slaton - Helen Anker Minnie McKnight, Angela - Malinda Parris Officer Stranes, Tom Watson - Norman Bowman Office Ivy, Luther Rosser - Stephen Webb Iola Stover - Joanna Kirkland Manteen - Zoe Rainey Essie - Celia Mei Rubin
Musical numbers: "The Red Hills of Home," "The Dream of Atlanta," "How Can I Call This Home?" "The Picture Show," "Leo at Work/What Am I Waiting For," "Interrogation," "There Is a Fountain/It Don't Make Sense," "Lullaby," "Somethin' Ain't Right," "Real Big News," "You Don't Know This Man," "Hammer of Justice," "Twenty Miles From Marietta," Frankie's Testimony," "The Factory Girls/Come Up to My Office," "Minola McKnight's Testimony," "My Child Will Forgive Me," "That's What He Said," "It's Hard to Speak My Heart," "Closing Statement and Verdict," "Prelude," "A Rumblin' and a Rolling," "Do It Alone," "Pretty Music," "The Glory," "This Is Not Over Yet," "Investigations," "Blues: Feel the Rain Fall," "Where Will You Stand When the Flood Comes?" "All The Wasted Time," "Sh'ma and Finale."

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