1998-12-18
New York Post
Donald Lyons

“PARADE,” a musical about a terrible injustice, rises beyond simplistic agitprop in the depiction of its central characters, Leo and Lucille Frank, who are beautifully played by Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello.
Carver’s Leo is a tall, gaunt guy with a narrow, high-browed face and a grim slit of a mouth.

He’s a prim, precise, angular man who keeps life at a fastidious distance.  Managing a pencil factory in Atlanta in 1913, he’s not at home in the South.

Carver perfectly gets Leo’s double, even triple alienation from his environment.  As a Jew, he is despised by the local Confederate culture.  As a Yiddish speaking Jew, he feels superior to the genteel, assimilated Atlanta Jews. And as a husband, he seems to erect certain fences between himself and his sweet local wife, who’s Jewish but not Yiddish-speaking.

When one of Leo’s employees, 13-year-old Mary Phagan, is found murdered on the factory premises, Leo is charged, convicted, and sentenced to death.  When the honest governor commutes the sentence, Leo is dragged out of jail and lynched.
This Kafkaesque narrative, based on real events, has a book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and was “co-conceived” by director Harold Prince.

Uhry has become the chronicler of Atlanta’s Jewish community, in “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Last Night of Ballyhoo”; indeed, there was a character similar to Leo (a cocky Northern Jew) in “Ballyhoo.”  This is Brown’s first work and reveals a supple, if still derivative versatility.

“Parade” works best – indeed, has real power – as an intimate study of a man, a woman and a marriage under nightmarish stress.

We first see Leo singing in counterpoint to the oompah of a Confederate Memorial Day parade: “This place is surreal; how can I call it home?” (Built would he have used the word “surreal” in 1913?)

Rushed into jail, he keeps his somewhat prissy dignity, even with his wife, who, while explaining to a reporter that “you don’t know this man,” clearly harbors some wisp of doubt about him herself.  Carmello beautifully captures Lucille’s hesitation and her shame at this hesitation.

The ensuing trial features as extraordinary fantasy sequence in which Leo enacts the sexual harassment lies of Mary’s coworker, during which Carver startlingly turns into a cavorting, prurient, lewd, Dionysiac demon.

The real Leo then finds words in a powerful song called “It’s Hard to Speak My Heart” – a moment matched by Lucille’s sudden decision to stand up with her husband in convinced solidarity.  When the guilty verdict comes, the Atlanta citizens strut and cakewalk in glee as the Franks stand rigid in horror.

In the second act, the Franks try to reverse the verdict, which was indeed a product of blackmail, subordination and bigotry.  “This is not over yet,” they insist.

Brown’s lyrics are marked by Sondheim internal rhymes (“schemings…redeemings”), his music by jagged, jumpy strings.  Later, in front of a Constable sky (lovely sets by Riccardo Hernandez, but I wish he’d resisted the bare, huge, ugly tree that looms ominously throughout), the couple have a picnic and exchange long rhythmic lines like, “I will never understand what I did to deserve you.”

As a portrait of a marriage, “Parade” has a power that recalls not Sondheim but Rogers and Hammerstein, and Carver’s wrenching creation of Leo – victim and more than victim – is the best male achievement in a musical since Michael Hayden in “Carousel.”
More formulaic and shallow is the musical’s shrill evocation of Atlanta in 1913.  Rebel soldiers longing for “the old red hills of home” set the note of a place psychotically nostalgic and savoring hysterical parades.  Despite a faux-sweet “Meet Me in St. Louis”-like trolley song between Mary and a beau, Atlanta is a hotbed of meanness.  The lament sung by a murdered girl’s mother ends with a vicious monosyllable: “Jew.”

Director Prince lays it on with a bullying grandiosity reminiscent of the hollow “Ragtime.”  Two locals emerge with a bit of pungent flavor: a newshound, strongly played by Evan Pappas (although his big song, “Big News,” is banal and his character stays undeveloped), and a good-‘ol-boy defense lawyer, done with sweaty authenticity by J.B. Adams, but given no songs at all.

If the foreground (the couple) is fine and the background (Atlanta) is crude, the middle ground (who killed Mary) is muddled, vague and confusing.  A black watchman (Ray Aranha) and a black sweeper (Rufus Bonds Jr., who gets to sing a rich, if doubtfully relevant, blues song) are somehow around and are subjected to racist intimidation by the district attorney, but the possibility of their guilt is left unexplored.

 

“Parade,” at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.  Book by Alfred Uhry; music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown; co-conceived and directed by Harold Prince.  With Brent Carver, Carolee Carmello, Evan Pappas, J.B. Adams, Ray Aranha, Rufus Bonds Jr.  Sets: Riccardo Hernandez.  Costumes: Judith Dolan.  Lighting: Howell Binkley.


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