A love story played out on two stages


Jacqueline Gerber
Special to The Plain Dealer

"Parade," which opened in New York in 1998, isn't the first contemporary
musical based on a murder.

"Chicago" did it two decades before. But where "Chicago" is hard-edged and
cynical, "Parade" is sentimental, with a love story at the core.

"Parade," conceived and originally directed by Harold Prince, was not a
resounding success in New York or on a national tour that included

Despite Tony Awards for best score and best book in 1999 and a nomination
for best musical, the show remains a curiosity.

Its subject matter, the true story of a murder and the trial of the accused
killer, seems like a topic for television, not the Great White Way.

Nevertheless, both the Cassidy Theatre in Parma Heights and the Beck Center
for the Arts in Lakewood have tackled this unusual and moving musical.

With an accessible and inventive score by Jason Robert Brown and a book by
Alfred Uhry ("Driving Miss Daisy," "The Last Night of Ballyhoo"), the show
carefully sets out Uhry's view of the crime, the trial and the aftermath,
all set in 1914 Atlanta.

When young Mary Phagan is found murdered in the pencil factory where she
works, the plant superintendent, Leo Frank, is accused of her murder.

A Jewish New Yorker, Frank is newly married to an Atlantan but feels out of
place. He has never blended into Southern society.

The event spins out of control as outrage over the murder consumes the local
citizens, who, nearly 50 years after the end of the Civil War, still are
trying to reclaim the shards of their shattered dignity with Confederate
Memorial Day parades.

An ambitious prosecutor gets his marching orders from the governor to
convict someone of the murder.

Mindful of the bias against Jews, Frank's Jewish attorney hands off his
client's defense to a good ol' boy who thinks that the term
"cross-examination" means "say nothing."

Evidence is trumped up, witnesses are coached or blackmailed into perjury,
and the governor is quite satisfied with Frank's conviction and death

And that's just Act I.

The two productions

Both the Cassidy and the Beck production are directed with sensitivity to
anti-Semitism in its historical context.

The Cassidy production, directed by David Jecmen, opened Sept. 6. The Beck
show, which premiered Friday, is directed by Scott Spence.

The Beck show tends to be tidier all around, with more of an emphasis on

Although the Cassidy is community theater, and the Beck cast includes an
Equity actor, the leads in both shows give comparable performances.

In the Cassidy production, Don Irven plays Frank as a kind but brittle man
who wants to blend in but can't bring himself to do it. Keith Gerchak, at
the Beck, presents a darker image, an authoritative man who is ultimately
humane but more domineering and disapproving.

Both productions excel in their portrayals of Frank's wife, Lucille.

Maggie Wirfel at the Cassidy exhibits a fragility that makes her
transformation from shy bride to passionate advocate all the more poignant.
At the Beck, Sandra Emerick's Lucille seems a stronger woman from the
beginning, a fitting consort for Gerchak's purposefulness. Both women give
powerful vocal dimension to their demanding roles.

The show's emotional core emerges late in the first act, when Lucille,
wearied by the uncontrollable events swirling around her innocent husband,
bursts into "You Don't Know This Man," in which she draws a line between the
truth as she knows it and that which the public perceives.

As with all courtroom dramas, detail abounds. The exposition takes up the
entire first act, culminating in a trial that alone has nine musical

One of the disarming creative devices in "Parade" is the occasional shift in
point of view from the Franks to that of the townspeople.

In one example, a witness falsely testifies that Frank has made overtures
toward the young factory girls. The action pauses as Frank dramatizes those
overtures in the funny and suggestive "Come Up to My Office."

In this number, Irven accomplishes a seamless transformation from timid
manager to lecherous supervisor. In the Beck production, Gerchak's
about-face leaves the audience with a smile on its face despite the
horrifying knowledge that Frank is acting out a scenario that will do him

Jason Robert Brown's score is rich in Americana, with gospel, ragtime,
rhythm and blues. The music propels the show through 30 musical numbers,
which, despite the sobering events, provide some uplifting moments. Both
shows feature vocally excellent casts and orchestras that deftly perform the
difficult score. The Beck orchestra, led by Larry Goodpaster, has the
advantage of appearing in an onstage gazebo, which adds charming visual

Brown's smart, straightforward lyrics advance the plot at the right pace,
although the words in Lucille's songs occasionally border on facile.

When Lucille embarks on a campaign to save her husband from execution, she
surprises herself and her husband by taking on the Atlanta society in which
she grew up. She collars the governor at a party. She buttonholes the
newspaper editor. Once the extent of courtroom chicanery is revealed, the
governor commutes the sentence to life in prison. It's a temporary, and
ultimately lost victory, as Frank finally realizes the extent of his wife's

Set and lighting

Both productions effectively use a spare set and dramatic lighting. Erik
Seidel's lighting design at the Beck maximizes color to set mood. Silhouette
is used often, especially in the parade scenes.

The supporting characters include the entertaining Jim Conley, a convict on
the loose who works at the factory and agrees to give false testimony.

At the Cassidy, Lester Currie gives an over-the-top performance featuring
the rollicking gospel number "That's What He Said" and the somber but
beautiful "Feel the Rain Fall."

Kyle Primous' Conley at the Beck is more subdued but no less polished.

For a serious story, "Parade" contains a considerable amount of humor. One
source is the boozy, opportunistic newspaper editor, played glibly by Ian
Atwood at the Cassidy and John Surso at the Beck.

The parades at the show's center symbolize love of country and the ability
to be swept up in the passing throng. "Parade" also illustrates how that
throng can turn ugly at a moment's notice.

Gerber is a free-lance writer in Shaker Heights. She is the host of the
"First Program" weekdays on WCLV-FM 104.9.

© 2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
Copyright 2002 All Rights Reserved.

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