1999-12-28
The New Yorker
John Lahr

…Injustice of another sort is the subject of “Parade,” a new Musical co-conceived and directed by Hal Prince, with a book by Alfred Uhry and lyrics and music by Jason Robert Brown. The show, at the Vivian Beaumont, revisits the case of Leo Frank, a college-educated Northern Jew who in 1913 was accused of murdering a teen-age girl in the Atlanta pencil Factory that he managed, only to be taken from jail in 1915 by anti-Semitic vigilantes and lynched. It is generally believed that Frank, a buttoned-down soul who barely spoke in his own defense, was railroaded, and for the entire first act—twenty-one songs—“Parade” feels like a train hauling a heavy cargo of exposition uphill to a preset destination. In the second act, when Lucille Frank’s fight to save her husband’s life turns a stale arranged marriage into a love match, the musical picks up some steam. The ride is never quite exhilarating, but it has its heady moments. 

The show is framed by a Confederate memorial parade—a spectacle meant to conjure the volatile Southern atmosphere that will lead to Frank’s scapegoating. In Prince’s slick staging, the parade passes upstage behind the heads of a row of spectators as if we were at the back of the crowd; we glimpse only the tops of instruments, the waving of Confederate flags, the caps of passing soldiers, the occasional tossed baton.  What is meant as a metaphor for the musical turns out to be an augury of the production, which doesn’t get close to the issues of anti-Semitism, tabloid rabble-rousing, and the spirit of collective Southern revenge, all of which it strains to see but perceives only vaguely.  Even the lyrics occasionally have trouble staying properly focused. In “How Can I Call This Home?,” which sets out Frank’s uncomfortable accommodation to the South and to his Southern wife, he concludes:
            Well, I’m sorry, Lucilee,
            But I feel what I feel
            And this place is surreal.
Surrealism was a nineteen-twenties phenomenon; this is 1913.

The show comes to life almost every time it veers from the grim, inevitable trajectory of Frank’s public story.  For instance, in the fantasy “Come Up To My Office,” Frank (the expert Brent Carver) breaks into a dance and briefly becomes the Big Bad Wolf whom the factory girls describe in their disputed testimony at the kangaroo-court proceedings. “Just take a break and swing by, honey,” Carver sings, gliding amusingly between the girls. “No one has to know but me and you/That you came, that you came, that you came, that you came…” That moment, which occurs in the middle of Act I, is the first to win the audience’s applause and is also the brightest spot for the choreographer, Patricia Birch, whose work otherwise lapses into the generic.  The black voices in “Parade”—especially the gritty bass of Ray Aranha and the fine blues baritone of Rufus Bonds, Jr.—are outstanding and give the show a jolt of energy and irony.  The best numbers are a chain-gang blues, “Feel the Rain Fall,” which is wailed powerfully by Bonds, and “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’,” where Aranha and Bonds are joined by J.C. Montgomery and Brooke Sunny Moriber in a terrific belowstairs meditation on the Northern hullabaloo about Frank’s plight:

            They comin’, they comin’ now, yessirree!
            ‘Cause a white man gonna get hung, you see.
             There’s a black man swingin’ in ev’ry tree
            But they don’t never pay attention!…
            They never say, “Why? Why? Why?”
            But if a Yankee boy flies…
            Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!

In musicals, love usually finds a way.  Here, at the finale, as Lucille (the big-voiced Carolee Carmello) is joined by her husband in a windy but effective duet, “All the Wasted Time,” love arrives too late to save the show.  The hard work that went into “Parade” is transparent, but in the theater it’s originality, not earnestness, that wins the day.


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