Posted on October 13, 2009 at 4:38 pm
October 14, 2009
THEATER REVIEW | ‘PARADE’
Sorrow Over an Anti-Semitic Miscarriage of Justice, Rendered in Sotto Voce
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
LOS ANGELES — As one of the bed-hopping interns in the hospital soap opera “Grey’s Anatomy,” T. R. Knight was both nebbishy and adorable, a sad-sack elf who still managed to get the girls, despite the fierce competition from his more square-jawed, bedroom-eyed colleagues. Onstage as Leo Frank, the Jewish factory superintendent wrongly accused of murdering a teenage girl in the musical “Parade,” Mr. Knight remains distinctly nebbishy, but the scope for adorability is severely limited.
This serious-minded, somber show sets to music a true story of such unrelenting grimness that the usual audience-appealing devices of musical theater — heart-seducing melodies, lively dancing, glowing star turns — are deployed in modest doses. You don’t want to be tapping your toes to a sorry spectacle of justice miscarried, particularly one that ends in a lynching.
With a skillful score by Jason Robert Brown and a book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry, “Parade” received mixed-to-downbeat reviews at its world premiere in 1998, in a production directed by Harold Prince for Lincoln Center Theater. Revived by the powerhouse Donmar Warehouse in London in 2007, directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford, it fared far better critically, and received several Olivier Award nominations.
Michael Ritchie, artistic director of the Center Theater Group here, has imported the Donmar production for the musical’s professional Los Angeles premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, enlisting Mr. Ashford to recreate his staging for the Taper’s small thrust stage, and supplying a sterling cast of American musical-theater veterans.
Davis Gaines, who spent many a year behind the mask in “The Phantom of the Opera,” plays three small roles (still in firm, stentorian voice). Michael Berresse and Charlotte D’Amboise, recently the original Zach and Cassie in the Broadway revival of “A Chorus Line,” are also aboard, along with Christian Hoff, a Tony winner for “Jersey Boys.”
The lush casting pays off handsomely, with all contributing incisive, effective performances, led by Mr. Knight’s focused, uncompromising turn as Leo, opposite an equally fine Lara Pulver (the lone holdover from the London cast) as his devoted, strong-minded wife, Lucille, whose efforts to seek justice for her husband almost succeed in saving his life.
But Mr. Ashford’s sensitive production, beautifully designed by Christopher Oram (sets and costumes) and Neil Austin (lighting), makes the real news here. Known on Broadway primarily as a choreographer (“Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Curtains”), Mr. Ashford broke through as a director with this production in London, and followed it up last summer with an even more rapturously received revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” starring Rachel Weisz, also for the Donmar.
On the vast Vivian Beaumont stage, “Parade” was dark and solemn — as it is here — but also somewhat bloated with self-importance. Scaled down to a more intimate size here, it speaks in a quieter voice and seems less strident in its depiction of the power of anti-Semitism, bigotry and venality in the South of the early 20th century. (The events, based on a real case, take place in and around Atlanta between 1913 and 1915.)
Mr. Ashford signals the Brooklyn-bred, Cornell-educated Leo’s alienation from his Southern surroundings by keeping him forever in isolation, even before he has been convicted and thrown in jail to await his death sentence. Stranded in shafts of gray or sepia light, he always seems to be at an emotional remove from everyone else onstage, even his own Southern-born Jewish wife.
Mr. Knight’s tamped-down performance — trimmed gently in comic inflections that add a small dose of humor — accentuates the qualities that Mr. Uhry did not shy from depicting in his book, and which were said to have contributed to Leo’s conviction. Businesslike, unemotional, slightly ornery and inwardly seething with contempt for the men who persecute him, Leo can bring himself to seek sympathy only in the sober, faltering voice of reason in the song “It’s Hard to Speak My Heart.”
But by the time he finds his voice, it has become obvious that a mania for retribution, combined with suspicion of outsiders, has closed the minds of his persecutors to rational thought.
Small but significant changes to the structure of the show have been made. On Broadway the role of the ambitious reporter covering the case, Britt Craig (Mr. Berresse), loomed a little too large. His drunken solo turn, the closest thing the original version had to a showstopper, has wisely been cut, leaving no seams in Mr. Brown’s score, which mixes character-defining songs in a Stephen Sondheim-influenced style with period pastiche and the occasional soaring ballad.
To temper the depiction of the Southerners as a horde of bigoted jackals or ignorant men and women whipped into a religious frenzy by a Christian publisher (P. J. Griffith), Mr. Ashford resurrects a ghost in an antebellum gown to haunt the proceedings, representing the mournful spirit of the more genteel South. (Admittedly this is a bit hokey, but effective nonetheless.)
Mr. Ashford’s choreographic skill brings a propulsive momentum to the important scene in the second act in which Lucille approaches the governor, hoping to persuade him to reopen the case. A courtly Southern dance becomes a subtle metaphor for the cozy, corrupt political atmosphere that helped lead to Leo’s conviction but might also be manipulated to save his life. (And it’s nice that he’s given the terrific dancers Mr. Berresse and Ms. D’Amboise, who play the governor and his wife, a chance to cut loose, however briefly.)
Still, just as I did when watching “Parade” for the first time a little over a decade ago, I found myself wondering if anti-Semitism, corruption and venality are subjects profitably illuminated by being dramatized as musical theater. Music enhances our emotional responses to theater, but our reaction to the events depicted in “Parade” is mostly revulsion, which doesn’t need much help from an orchestra.
Even the suffering of Leo evokes a muted sorrow, more intellectual than sympathetic, since for much of the show he is depicted as cold, scornful and passive. The authors of “Parade” deserve credit for their fidelity to history and their ambition to probe a painful chapter in the American past, but for me the persecution of Leo Frank is a story that does not gain any greater dimensions by being set to song.
Book by Alfred Uhry; music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown; co-conceived by Harold Prince; directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford; sets and costumes by Christopher Oram; lighting by Neil Austin; sound by Jon Weston; musical director, Tom Murray; orchestrator, David Cullen; original London sound design by Nick Lidster and Terry Jardine for Autograph; associate choreographer, Chris Bailey; hair and wig design by Carol F. Doran; associate producer, Neel Keller. A Donmar Warehouse production, presented by the Center Theater Group, Michael Ritchie, artistic director; Charles Dillingham, managing director. At the Mark Taper Forum, 135 North Grand Avenue, Los Angeles; (213) 628-2772. Through Nov. 15. Running time: 2 hours 38 minutes.
WITH: Brad Anderson (Officer Ivey/Luther Rosser/Guard), Michael Berresse (Governor Slaton/Britt Craig/Mr. Peavy), Charlotte d’Amboise (Mrs. Phagan/Sally Slaton), Davis Gaines (Old Soldier/Judge Roan/Guard), P. J. Griffith (Officer Starnes/Tom Watson), Curt Hansen (Young Soldier/Frankie Epps/Guard), Deidrie Henry (Minnie McKnight/Angela), Christian Hoff (Hugh Dorsey), T. R. Knight (Leo Frank), Lisa Livesay (Monteen), Hayley Podschun (Iola Stover), Lara Pulver (Lucille Frank), David St. Louis (Newt Lee/Jim Conley/Riley), Rose Sezniak (Lila/Mary Phagan) and Phoebe Strole (Essie).