We made one of our twice-a-year visits to New York theater last month to catch almost certain Tony nominees and a couple of shows that opened just after we were there last fall. Intermittently before the certain-to-be-strange June 11 Tony Awards, we will share reviews of seven productions and performances that may or may not win, may or may not tour. The shows are: Life of Pi, Parade, Sweeney Todd, Some Like It Hot, Kimberly Akimbo, Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. Links to other reviews in this series can be found at the bottom as the reviews run. Last November, we reviewed contenders Leopoldstadt, & Juliet and Death of a Salesman
By Bill Hirschman
Perhaps it’s the headlines over the past few years and especially the past few months spotlighting the rise in virulent anti-Semitism that have invested the musical Parade with an added level of relevancy, even urgency.
But even speaking as a Jew, unless these events are happening in your backyard, they have at least one level of distance as you read about them in the newspaper or see them on the evening news.
But in the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, you watch first-hand the inexorable horror rising 100 feet in front of you with the complexity, the fear and the human enmity enveloping you.
This much-revised revival of the 1998 original by playwright Alfred Uhry, composer Jason Robert Brown and initial vision of director Harold Prince has evolved from an effective if not perfect drama now into an overwhelming if persistently chilly tragedy.
Indeed, its relevance is underscored in this version directed by Michael Arden as it opens with projected footage of current day Georgia and a plaque memorializing the site of the story and a postscript that the case was reopened in 2019.
It’s 1913 Atlanta where the social wounds from the Civil War not a half-century old remain unwithered, from the unabated racial prejudice to the bitterness toward the northerners who won the war and inflicted “Reconstruction.”
Brooklyn Jew Leo Frank comes to Atlanta to run a pencil factory as a fish out of water and marries a local Jewish woman Lucille. He notes at one point, with sour humor, “I don’t cuss, I don’t drawl. How can I call this home?”
When a 13-year-old employee Mary Phagan is found murdered, he becomes a suspect after a Black man working there becomes a key witness to dodge his own vulnerability. What follows are societal and racial prejudices on trial, and an opportunity to wreak revenge upon the North. All of it is fanned into fire by a fundamentalist newspaper publisher and a sensationalist reporter.
As one character says, “Hanging another nigra ain’t enough this time,”
Amid a huge public outcry and a railroading prosecution, Leo is convicted of murder with virtually no real evidence other than clearly false testimony from Mary’s three young co-workers wanting to get their name in the papers after being coached. During the media event trial, the United States and Georgia flags flank the courtroom, but the Stars and Bars are carried across the community.
Leo is sentenced to death but his wife Lucille persuades the governor to look into the case as they appeal the conviction. Uncovering too many uncertainties in his investigation, the governor commutes the death sentence to life imprisonment (with the possibility of a new probe) — knowingly destroying his own political future. But a mob then drags Leo from a prison farm in Marietta and lynches him.
Equally important in the story are the personalities and relationship between Leo and Lucille. Leo begins as uptight, arrogant to his wife and everyone else. Lucille is his intelligent but initially submissive partner. After the conviction, Lucille finds the strength to fight for her husband; her commitment unlocks Leo’s interior. The moments that they bond in the powerful duets “This is Not Over Yet” and “All The Wasted Time” elicited extended extensive applause of relief, appreciation and encouragement the night we saw this.
Yet, this is not a simple relationship. I may have missed it but l’m not sure anyone ever says “I love you.” But the two grow ever closer together in their jailhouse meetings in what has become a true profoundly deep marriage.
And under it all, we know how all of this will end. Sitting in the mezzanine, it was hard to ignore that on the central platform upon which much of the show occurs, you always can see the outline of what will be the trap door that his body will fall through.
Interestingly and likely intentionally, the script, music and production never quite pronounce Leo as guiltless. That’s may be because that’s not what the story is about.
The work has been reworked over 24 years including a major overhaul at Donmar Warehouse in London 2007. That seems evident; a solid production I saw about ten years ago had virtues but didn’t have this impact. Parade is not remotely subtle and it must battle a first act in which the central figure is a cold not very likable protagonist.
But Uhry (best known for Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night at Ballyhoo) penned a fine script showing both the social forces at war and the internal changes in the Franks’ marriage.
The brilliant Brown (everything from The Bridges of Madison County to Honeymoon in Vegas) delivers some of his finest work including vivid swelling orchestrations (with Don Sebesky) for an array of musical styles from down home country to gospel to introspective ballads to passionate duets to cakewalks to muscular production numbers.
Arden and company have infused the production with scores of special touches such as projecting photo portraits of the real life characters as their actor is introduced on stage. Leo spends the entire intermission on stage in the center of the platform as if contemplating in a prison cell. The economically diverse community – including a few Black residents watching from the sides but not singing along with the chorus numbers – surrounds the action. Onstage lights are shined directly into the audience as if a challenge to take responsibility in the future.
The cast is flawless with emotion-soaked voices that energize everything they touch. Ben Platt (Dear Evan Hansen) who originated the role in this version at City Center, convincingly charts Leo’s emergence from a prickly tamped down creature to a human being we feel sympathy for. He also gets to convincingly let loose in an imaginary depiction of the lying girls’ testimony in the ragtime “Come Up to My Office.
As Lucille, Micaela Diamond is an experienced if not well-known player, although she was one of three title impersonations in The Cher Show. As the plot allows, she grows and glows in each passing scene.
But praise is due to so many in the large cast, many of whom get spotlit solos such as Alex Joseph Grayson as the lying employee who the governor tries to examine on a chain gang and who unreels “Feel the Rain Fall.”
Note: A fine accounting of the events seen from a broader perspective was presented on television in 1988 as The Murder of Mary Phagan starring Jack Lemmon as the governor, Peter Gallagher as Leo and Rebecca Miller as Lucille. Track it down on You Tube.
Parade is nominated for musical revival, actress in a leading role, actor in a leading role, direction, costume design and lighting design.