The term “daring” is probably too often applied to shows that really aren’t, but the new musical “Parade” warrants it. Directed by Harold Prince, Broadway’s master of the dark and bold, “Parade” tells the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man living in Atlanta, who is accused of raping and murdering a 13-year old girl. Hardly material for a Broadway musical, but Prince, along with book writer Alfred Uhry and composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown, rises to the challenge.
From the very beginning, “Parade” is walking a tightrope. How does one tell such a grave story in a sensitive manner while still entertaining an audience? There is nothing amusing about a man being wrongly accused and convicted of a murder solely because he’s Jewish. But the creative team behind “Parade” doesn’t want to depress us. They want to make us think, they want to touch us, and they even want to allow us a laugh or two. The fact that they succeed is a tribute to the talent of these three men.
The play opens with a young confederate soldier singing a beautiful
anthem to “The Old Red Hills of Home.” We see that same soldier years
later, an embittered veteran preparing to ride a float in the Confederate
Memorial Day parade, and suddenly there is a profound sense of what happened
to the South in the post-Civil War era. Once hopeful and patriotic,
the South was left in shambles by the destructive force of the Union army
and although it built itself back up again, the resentment is still strong.
Enter Leo Frank (Brent Carver), a Jewish man who moved to Atlanta two years
earlier from Brooklyn. In contrast with the genteel friendliness
of the celebratory parade-goers, we see little, uneasy, uptight Leo Frank,
a stranger in a strange land, walking uncomfortably around them as he sings
“How Can I Call This Home?” Leo is heading for the pencil factory
where he works as supervisor. Ever the workaholic, he is busy at
the factory on a Saturday when young Mary Phagan (Christy Carlson Romano)
arrives to get her paycheck. Many hours later, the night watchman
finds her body, raped and strangled, in the basement, and the only two
suspects are the two men who were in the factory at the time, the elevator
operator, Jim Conley (the excellent Rufus Bonds, Jr.), and Leo Frank.
When Governor Slaton (John Hickok) makes it clear to the prosecutor Hugh
Dorsey (Herndon Lackey) that the public outcry demands someone be charged
with this crime, and Conley agrees to implicate Leo, it becomes clear where
this tragic story is headed.
The entire courtroom sequence is brilliantly staged by Prince and choreographer Patricia Birch. It is widely believed that Frank was indeed innocent, that he had been railroaded, and the show contends this as well. Witness after witness delivers testimony, most of which is revealed to be completely false or grossly exaggerated, that is damaging to Frank's case. So, we are left to watch a Jewish man, accused of a crime he didn’t commit, hurtling toward the inevitable conviction. But, as it soon becomes apparent, the creators of "Parade" didn't set out to tell just a trial story or even to tell a tale of injustice. In the second act, after the conviction, when it would seem that there was no where else to go, something wonderful happens—"Parade" becomes a love story.
Leo’s wife, Lucille (Carolee Carmello), an assimilated Southern Jew, is discontent with her marriage. Although she cares deeply about Leo, whom she feels is a good and hard-working man, their marriage was more or less arranged and has left her unfulfilled. Throughout the first act, Leo resists Lucille’s attempts to be an attentive wife. He blushes when she alludes to sex, and later, after he’s first been arrested, he doesn’t even seem to want her company when she comes to visit him in jail. Leo continually struggles with his feelings for Lucille, never sure whether he wants her and reluctant to admit that he needs her. But she persists and when, on her own, she manages to convince Governor Slaton to reexamine the case, Leo finds a new respect for his wife. Together, the two work to win Leo his freedom (“This is Not Over Yet”), and, in the process, they fall in love (“All the Wasted Time”).
The terrible death of the young Mary Phagan is not lost in the principle story of Leo and Lucille Frank. Her mother’s testimony, “My Child Will Forgive Me” and the song at her funeral “There is a Fountain/It Don’t Make Sense” are both heartbreaking and very telling of how hatred can arise from grief. During the haunting funeral song, Frankie Epps (Kirk McDonald), a friend of Mary’s, asks God to forgive him for his desire for vengeance. From the powerful confusion that surrounds the death of this young girl comes a need for someone to blame, and through Frankie we are better able to see how Leo Frank became, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the object of such hatred.
The show’s librettist, Alfred Uhry, best known for his other Southern plays (“Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Last Night of Ballyhoo”), brings his own experience to “Parade.” Having grown up in Atlanta, Uhry was always very aware of the after-effect that the Frank case had on Jews there. His own personal connections to the Franks were a relative who owned the factory where Leo worked and his grandmother (the real-life Miss Daisy) who was friends with Lucille in her later years. Jason Robert Brown, the talented young composer and lyricist, has written an impressive score, flavored with blues, gospel and a variety of other themes. This is his first musical, and he appears to be one of the most promising talents around. The marriage between Uhry’s book and Brown’s score is seamless, giving it the feeling of a new kind of American opera.
Besides the dual trial story/love story that gives “Parade” its unique quality, there is also something slightly different about its presentation. This isn’t a musical “based on a true story," but a true story told in musical form. Leo and Lucille aside, the characters are not presented so much as threads of the story, but as pieces of the puzzle. Take reporter Britt Craig (Evan Pappas). A more conventional story would have used him throughout the play, perhaps as the sympathetic reporter who discovers Frank's innocence and proves it to the world. But in "Parade," he simply plays his part as a reporter more interested in selling papers than telling the truth; a sort of antagonist, but never a device.
While most of the songs are vehicles for plot and character, others are purely for mood and exposition, such as “The Dream of Atlanta” or “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’.” Although not integral to the smaller story, they help complete a picture of the time and place of the event. The Leo Frank case was part of a history. There were causes and there were effects, and “Parade” concerns itself with all of it. It is a pageant, telling a specific story without forgetting that it’s part of something larger.
Without a doubt, “Parade” is the most exciting new musical of the Broadway season. It has a strong, solid cast (notably, the leads, Carver and Carmello), as well as an extraordinarily talented creative team. In some ways it is a frustrating show, not just because it ends unhappily, but because the authors aren’t able to answer the difficult questions that the story of Leo Frank (and that of countless others) presents about the South, race, and prejudice. There are no answers, and the show acknowledges that fact by not trying to answer them. Instead they try to understand what happened and why it happened, and they make a point of highlighting the good that came from this awful event. Governor Slaton ended his career by doing what was right over what was popular (that is, reopening the case and investigating it for himself), and he became a better man for it. Leo and Lucille, at the most harrowing point in their lives, found love, and they carried that with them to the end. “Parade,” a thought-provoking and touching musical, carries you through the gamut of emotion while you’re in the theater, and it stays with you long after you’ve left.
“Parade” is playing at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater until
February 28th, at which point it may be moved to a Broadway house.
Unfortunately, there will be no rush tickets available, but prices range
from $40-75, and even the cheaper seats get you a good view. The
Vivian Beaumont is at 150 West 65th Street. Performances are Tues.-Sat.
at 8pm, Wed. and Sat. matinees at 2pm, Sun. matinees at 3pm. For
tickets, call tele-charge at (212) 239-6200.