2000-08-17
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Alice T. Carter

Nothing about "Parade" is easy. Alfred Uhry’s story about a man lynched for a crime he almost surely did not commit offers no 11th-hour reprieve, no happy fairy tale ending.

Its central character, Leo Frank, is cold, remote, unemotional – a man who prefers to spend a holiday working with facts and figures than picnicking with his spirited and attractive wife.

The rest of the cast is even less congenial. They’re drawn as variations on a theme of opportunism: people who would without a qualm allow an innocent man to hang if it would advance their political or journalistic career, buy them a reduced sentence, promote their religious agenda or simply reassure their own preconceived assumptions about Northerners and Jews.

And then there’s that big ole tree, impossibly twisted and unbalanced with its overreaching branches, persistently looming over the set and reminding us that things aren’t going to get much better.

In 1913, a Brooklyn-born Jew living in Atlanta was accused of killing Mary Phagan, 13, who worked at the pencil factory he managed. Convicted largely on circumstantial evidence, supposition and innuendo, Frank was sentenced to hang. When the governor commuted his sentence to life in prison, an enraged mob dragged him from his cell and lynched him.

Now, I’m not so naive to agree with Oscar Wilde’s statement that the meaning of fiction is that the good end happily and the bad unhappily.

After all, "Parade" is based on fact. We accept from the outset that Frank is doomed. But it denies us catharsis. With the exception of Frank’s wife, Lucille, everyone else remains untroubled and unchanged by this unjust and disturbing act. Indeed, most seem destined to profit from their involvement.

Nevertheless, it’s a show that’s likely to stir passions, either pro or con. Tuesday’s opening night audience for this touring production of "Parade" stood to give it a near-unanimous, emotional ovation. Many were clearly stirred by this tale of injustice and a life wasted. Others unable to find an emotional connection either bailed at intermission or grumbled about its darkness and detachment.

Dark it is, in the way Stephen Sondheim scores are dark. It lacked Sondheim’s delightful inventiveness with words. But Jason Robert Brown’s rich, soaring score may need time to work its magic on us. Repeated exposure could turn it into a classic staple in the repertory of small, serious opera companies.

The production that the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera is presenting as the final show of its 2000 season is a revival of the short-lived original New York production. Co-conceivers Harold Prince, Uhry and Brown took their work to Atlanta, where Christopher Manos, producer of Theater of the Stars, had put together enough guaranteed tour dates to make remounting the show feasible. They restaged it for proscenium theaters and made some cuts and adjustments, but basically left it as it was – a show they all believed in.

It’s masterfully produced and given every advantage – Judith Dolan’s beautifully detailed, opulent, period-perfect costumes, Riccardo Hernandez’s quickly moving succession of set elements, and Howell Binkley’s rich and evocative lighting. There’s a hugely talented, experienced cast of three dozen filled with soaring voices and well-crafted characters. You never doubt that each of them is as self-serving and cold-hearted as presented.

David Pittu’s Leo Frank is a stranger in an alien culture, an educated New Yorker and a Jew who uses big words and can’t understand why the people who surround him choose to celebrate a war they lost. Pittu gives us little reason to like Frank. Strangely, he’s most appealing when presented as a villain in a fantasy sequence during his trial.

As his wife, Andrea Burns travels the greatest journey, evolving from a typical Southern gentlewoman into a smart, determined and savvy champion of her husband’s innocence. Pittu and Burns’ one poignant moment of pleasure comes late in the second act, as they finally discover and fall in love with each other in "All the Wasted Time."

Perhaps what most makes "Parade" so hard to love is that it holds the mirror up a little too closely to our own human natures. We see how eager we are to casually condemn those who are different because it’s easier than examining our comfortable assumptions and prejudices.

Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera presents "Parade" through Sunday. Performances: 8 p.m. today and Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $17 to $36 evenings; $11 to $30 matinees. Benedum Center, Seventh Street at Penn Avenue, Downtown. Details: (412) 456-6666.


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