THE BASICS: This powerful 1998 musical by Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown concerns a sensational crime and murder trial that took place in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1913. This ambitious ART production features a cast of thirteen. There are also four musicians. The direction is by Matthew Refermat, with musical direction by Donald Jenczka. PARADE plays weekends at TheatreLoft, 545 Elmwood Avenue, through April 13th. The play, with its single intermission, runs a hefty 2 ¾ hours.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: When pretty 13 year old Mary Phagan is found dead, beaten and raped in the basement of the pencil factory where she worked, the populace, stunned and furious, goes wild in their search for a cathartic culprit. The black factory janitor, Newt, seems the likely culprit, but Governor Slaton wants a bit more punch and publicity from the incident, so the investigation is shifted toward Leo Frank, the factory manager–a stiff, retiring, intellectual Jewish “interloper” from NYC. (The black janitor is a Southerner after all, and a Christian.) With liberal witness coaching, bribes and coercion, prosecutor Hugh Dorsey weaves a strong false narrative, and delivers the requisite conviction. Frank is sentenced to death, while the good people of Atlanta cheer and sing, waving their little Confederate flags (actually, they do this on several occasions). When further investigation, pushed by a tireless Lucille Frank, leads to a stay of execution, Leo is ultimately abducted and lynched by a KKK-like gang, in nearby Marietta, by the house of his supposed victim.
On the bright side, Leo’s fledgling marriage to Lucille, shaky at the start, grows to a deep, respectful love during the period of his incarceration.
THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: Alfred Uhry’s (DRIVING MISS DAISY) script packs a terrific punch, particularly the long first act. There is some flab in Act II; the story is really almost over, and there are a few numbers that seem to be little more than padding. The score by Jason Robert Brown is also punchy and vital, lacking only in that one magical element—strong melodies. I wish I could comment meaningfully on the lyrics (my strong suit), but too darn many of them were drowned out. See below.
Happily, PARADE has been well stocked with top musical theater performers. Jordan Levin, as Leo Frank, is the standout; he is perfectly on point in all he does and bears an unusually strong resemblance to the real Leo Frank. Melissa Levin, Nicholas Lama and Tim Goehrig all make strong impressions. The company voices are strong and blend well; occasional a cappella moments are particularly haunting. Loss of lyrics, a common problem on our local stages, here relates to the acoustic shortcomings of the venue, generally suboptimal diction, a lack of adequate miking in some cases, and the booming of the otherwise excellent ensemble. Be prepared for some of the loudest French horn sounds you have ever heard! Hopefully, some immediate adjustments will be made.
From a production viewpoint, things are generally adequate, sometimes a notch above. There are some nice period costumes by Carly Kuksch. The set by Matthew LaChiusa is pretty darn meager, but the Executive Director does do a nice little turn as the Old Soldier early in the show. Later, as the presiding Judge Roan, he is placed so poorly on the stage that he all but vanishes from the scene.
IN SUM: A rich, powerful, disturbing evening at the theater. Kudos to the ART people, for rescuing this obscure musical (only 80 performances on Broadway) and gifting it to us.
NB: PARADE would have been a natural choice for the JRT. I can only hope that JRT patrons will somehow hear about this production, and make the trek downtown to share in this meaningful experience!
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!