'Parade' tells an important story, but is it a musical?

By Dominic Papatola
Wednesday, August 2, 2000
Saint Paul Pioneer Press

Alfred Uhry says that, when he told the story
of Leo Frank to Harold Prince, the famed
Broadway director insisted that it would be a
terrific idea for a musical.

Not to cast aspersions on Mr. Prince and his 20
Tony Awards, but I don't get it: The tale of
the transplanted Northern Jew charged with
murdering a 13-year-old girl and then lynched
by an angry mob doesn't exactly set toes

The story raises a bevy of heavyweight
questions: Was anti-Semitism in the South in
1913 so virulent that it would make authorities
overlook a black man who was also implicated
in the crime? Or was Frank, who ran an Atlanta
pencil factory, pursued for other reasons --
because he was a Yankee; because he
represented industrialization in the agrarian
South; because he used child labor? And, most
basic of all, did Frank commit the crime?

``Parade,'' written by Uhry, directed by Prince
with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown,
answers that last question with a resounding
``no.'' But the production, now playing the
Ordway Center for the Performing Arts,
struggles so hard to deal with all those other
issues -- plus trying like heck to be a good
musical -- that it doesn't really succeed on
either score.

Brown, who won a Tony for ``Parade'' and is
considered one of Broadway's promising young
musical-theater talents, provides a score that's
admirable and tuneful, if somewhat bloated.
The show begins with a stirring anthem, ``The
Old Red Hills of Home,'' and ranges all over the
emotional landscape without feeling

That emotional athleticism occasionally goes
overboard. Where the teasing, Southern-fried
``The Picture Show'' perfectly captures the
tone and mood of the teen-agers singing it,
``Real Big News,'' sung by a journalist who's
the show's off-again, on-again narrator, feels
oversized for a middle-of-the-act number. The
overwrought ``You Don't Know This Man,''
sung by an anguished Mrs. Frank, sounds
histrionic compared to the simple, supple ``My
Child Will Forgive Me,'' delivered by the slain
girl's mother.

Playwright Uhry, a Triple Crown winner (there's
a Pulitzer, an Oscar and a couple of Tonys on
his shelf), is even less certain. He spends the
first act developing Leo Frank as a scrupulously
honest but cold, superior and high-handed man
railroaded through a Southern-style justice
system. Early in Act Two, though, Leo
suddenly warms, and the show becomes a love
story set in the shadow of the gallows.

There doesn't seem to be much reason for this
transformation, except that it allows Brown to
pen a couple of tunes -- the joyous ``This Is
Not Over Yet'' and a soaring ballad, ``All the
Wasted Time'' -- that it's impossible to imagine
the First Act Leo would sing.

For all that, Uhry draws characters that are
more interesting than musical theater usually
provides, and those characters are brought to
life well in this touring production.

He's clearly a victim of injustice and prejudice,
but most of the time, Leo Frank is such a
self-important schmuck that he doesn't elicit
much sympathy. David Pittu realizes this and
hones Leo to a tight, hard point. That
sharpness makes him superbly believable in the
first act but not quite credible in the second.

Andrea Burns plays Lucille Frank, a blushing
Southern belle galvanized into action by the
accusations against her husband. Her
performance doesn't call for as much emotional
range, but Burns' voice is a lovely instrument
to deliver Brown's tunes.

In history, Jim Conley was a black man
coached by the defense to give damning
evidence against Frank. In the musical, Keith
Byron Kirk is a wonder -- a swaggering,
supremely confident presence whose sung
testimony in the courtroom enlivens the first
act. The rumbly voiced John Leslie Wolf is a
force of pure evil as the anti-Semitic publisher
who stirs up the masses against Frank.

Can a musical be both an emotional downer
and a hit? Sometimes -- the Guthrie turned the
trick last season with ``Sweeney Todd,'' and
zillions of people have cried their eyes out at
``Les Miserables.'' But while the story of Leo
Frank is worthy of dramatization, its density
makes it a hard sell for a musical.

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