2000-10-25
The Cleveland Free Times
James Damico

Jeez, this Parade road show is sure looking for trouble from the truth-in-advertising police. It claims to be a musical. But it obviously didn’t start off as a comic strip, a Disney cartoon or an entry from Cliff’s Notes Guide for Dummies to French Novels, Italian Operas and American Movies. So, how can anybody honestly call it a Broadway musical?

What they should be calling it is a Broadway miracle. That this sober-themed, uncommercial work ever saw the light of Manhattan neon is wondrous enough. Throw in its Tony awards even after a negative New York Times review closed the 1999 show, top that with the current, unheard-of national tour for a Broadway flop, and you have the makings of a show-biz legend. The true wonder of Parade, however, is the zealous determination with which its creators have guarded the integrity of their conception and honored it with their considerable talents, insight and dogged respect for its truth and humanity.

Parade centers on the railroading of Leo Frank for the 1913 Atlanta murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan and his eventual mob-lynching. Frank was Phagan’s boss and the last person who admitted seeing her alive. His real crime, however, was being a New York Jew in a narrowly religious and racially prejudiced South still seething with Civil War humiliation.

Noted playwright Alfred Uhry’s book is impressionistic and thus occasionally reliant on stereotyping. But he has a telling ability to evoke the emotional truths of character and situation, and accumulate them to moving and meaningful effect. Director Hal Prince is an essential aid in this process, with an unhurried yet economical production that precisely etches each step in the story’s progression.

It’s Jason Robert Brown’s resplendently expressive words and music, however, that form the work’s heart. Inspired by Charles Ives, the score is a collage of musical forms — ragtime, jazz, hymns, sentimental ballads. Yet Brown invests and juxtaposes them with a modern sensibility and his own first-rate invention in a way that seamlessly fuses them with the story. The composer has a glorious gift for melody that ameliorates his sometimes stern dedication to a higher purpose and less accessible musical style.

Word is the touring version unexpectedly improves on original production. Most unusually, it boasts the presence of the composer himself to conduct the proficient orchestra. Apart from the exceptions already noted, the company’s acting is entirely able; though the musical performances are what underpin the occasion. David Pittu is not possessed of great vocal range, but he imbues Leo’s songs with a persuasive emotional lyricism, as in his plaintive outsider’s lament, "How Can I Call This Home?" and his wrenching trial testimony, "It’s Hard to Speak My Heart."

As his wife, Andrea Burns displays a lush, gorgeous voice that radiates through her defense of her husband, "You Don’t Know This Man," and their stirring love duet, "All the Wasted Time." With riveting personality and vocal equipment, Keith Byron Kirk makes for a fascinating villain in a pair of rousing numbers; Jeff Edgerton frighteningly intones a racist hymn; and Adinah Alexander movingly mourns her murdered daughter in "My Child Will Forgive Me."

Any number of other fine voices in the large ensemble are effectively used in Brown’s rich variety of musical demands and delights.

Sets, lighting and costumes match the high level of the rest of the production. These days, this is a rare theatrical happening, and one you may really regret missing.


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