2000-06-14
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Dan Hulbert

The verdict: A musical with troublesome flaws but a story of raw power at its heart.

If you’ve heard anything at all about the musical "Parade," you may know that it involves a lynching. So when the lights of the Fox Theatre come up on a huge tree, its bare limbs gnarled and twisted as if by tormenting gods — well, so much for the surprise ending.

But then, this is a tragic story and tragedy isn’t about surprise. As defined by the Greeks, it’s about the unchanging flaws in human nature that lead down the well-worn path to disaster. The gods, if not angry, are unmoved.

And those human flaws — in the 1913 case of Leo Frank, the Brooklyn-bred Jewish factory foreman who was found guilty of murdering a 13-year-old girl in an obviously tainted trial — produce anti-Semitism, racism, class hatred, sexual hysteria, regional resentments, you name it. In this case so many of the threads of strife in American life came together in one ferociously hard knot, and author Alfred Uhry and composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown have managed to give it mythic size just by sticking fairly close to the historical record.

Yet the story by its complex nature doesn’t lend itself to the inevitably simplifying effects of being treated as a mainstream musical — or is that even the right word to describe it?
More on the problem of defining "Parade" in a moment, the bottom line is: It’s a powerful and moving evening of theater, if frequently flawed. New actors in key roles give a more human, sympathetic ring to this musical drama than it had in its two-month premiere run at Lincoln Center in 1998. At the same time, moving the production from that deep thrust stage to the overly wide, shallow Fox stage has flattened Hal Prince’s staging, literally and figuratively. Despite the painfully obvious giveaway of that big ol’ tree, "Parade" is a show that needs subtlety, and subtlety gets lost in the Fox like a man trying to play the violin in the middle of a TV wrestling match.

David Pittu is a big improvement as the new Leo Frank, a weightier acting presence than Brent Carver was in New York. One of his first sung lines, "These people make me tense!" (Southerners, that is) gets a laugh, establishing Leo’s funny, Woody Allen-style schnookishness. In the evening’s strongest fantasy scene, he becomes the lecher that the people in the courtroom imagine him to be, luring Mary Phagan and the other factory girls up to his office, hopping around like a simian song-and-dance man. Pittu travels an impressive arc in rising to the occasion of his fate, singing a prayer in Hebrew under the lynching tree.

Andrea Burns is more problematic as Lucille Frank, his wife. She doesn’t act well in dialogue — even when Leo’s in jail, she’s still speaking in a perky, honey drawl — but she is powerful in song. Witness "You Don’t Know This Man," her stirring defense of Leo to the opportunistic young tabloid reporter who’s hounding her for another sensational scoop.

There are also strong performances from John Leslie Wolfe, as the anti-Semitic publisher Tom Watson, here vividly exaggerated as a demonic force; and Peter Samuel as the charismatic but unscrupulous prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey. Another casting change that works well is Keith Byron Kirk as Conley, the black janitor who, historians believe, fingered Frank to cover his own crime. In New York, the actor in this role came across as a wronged and noble man, a la "Ragtime’s" Coalhouse Walker, but Kirk makes Conley wickedly manipulative, pushing all that political correctness out the window for a characterization that looks historically correct.

With due respect to Uhry’s book, which lays out the story and characters clearly, it’s Brown’s score that emerges, on second viewing, as the show’s most original element. And its heart. When Frank faces his death and says his prayer, he uses the same soaring tune that the Rebel soldier uses at the top of the show, a paean to his homeland called "The Old Red Hills of Home." Having these two men share a melody, and so many human qualities besides, is a stroke of brilliant irony by Brown. And the tragedy at the story’s center.


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