1998-12-18
The Chicago Tribune
Richard Christiansen

“Parade” in its premiere at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, is the latest, bravest and boldest effort yet to lift the American musical to a new level, and perhaps a new era, of artistry.

It is fitting that this work, threaded on a terrible story of mob lynching, should be one of the supreme achievements of director Harold Prince, the man who staged "Cabaret," "Sweeney Todd," "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and other shows designed to take the musical into darker and deeper territory, beyond the traditional turf of romance and sweet tunes.

And it is ironic that this thrilling, challenging work should be the last fully staged musical to come from the now bygone era of producer Garth Drabinsky, exiled founder of Livent, the financially embattled producing organization that is co-presenting "Parade" with the not-for-profit Lincoln Center Theatre. It was the Drabinsky team that encouraged and pushed forward "Parade" and its immediate predecessor, "Ragtime," and, though others took over after he was fired from Livent amid accusations of financial irregularities, it was Drabinsky who saw to it that this important, risky effort had the chance to become a reality.

What has emerged from the six years of preparation in writing, staged readings and workshops is a musical that, more than any other recent piece, stakes claim to becoming a new, vital form of opera in America. While traditional opera houses have wasted their efforts on such leaden duds as Lyric Opera’s 1997 "Amistad," works such as "Parade" are reinventing and reinvigorating musical drama with the aid of such old masters as Prince and playwright Alfred Uhry and such new talents as composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown.

"Parade" is not an entirely sung-through work. In recounting the real-life story of Leo Frank, the Jewish man accused and convicted in 1913 of murdering a teenage girl employed in the Atlanta pencil factory where he was superintendent, it has several long stretches of dialogue. But Brown’s abundant music is the show’s heartbeat — soft, stirring, tense, explosive or lyric as the story demands.

The music sets the blood rushing in the show’s first scene, which brilliantly sets up the time, place and situation of the drama. A young Confederate soldier (Jeff Edgerton), alone in a spotlight, sings passionately of "The Old Red Hills of Home." Then, in one of designer Howell Binkley’s many startling shifts of lighting, the boy is replaced by his later self, a ragged, grizzled, one-legged veteran who steps forward into the light as his young persona retreats into the shadows.

There he is, a defiant, angry old man as he gets ready to appear in the Confederate Memorial Day festivities of 1913; and there, in a twinkling, comes the parade of "Parade," a procession of floats, brass bands, Southern belles, political figures and marching soldiers that settings designer Riccardo Hernandez has fashioned to move across the stage, in back of the crowd that presses forward to see its huge, bright Confederate flags pass by.

Cutting from that pageant to a small, intimate space on the open stage, the musical introduces Leo and Lucille Frank, she a Georgia girl and he a Yankee Jew who feels out of place in the South. Just how alienated he is becomes clear in the next big musical number. Here, as Frank sets out to work at the pencil factory, he runs into the crowd watching the parade and is pushed, elbowed and shoved along to the end of the line as he plaintively sings, "How Can I Call This Home?"

There are many such stunning theatrical moments in "Parade," including two set within Frank’s trial for murder. One, a surreal fantasy, occurs when Frank, charged with being a pedophile, dances madly about with three factory girls while lasciviously singing to them "Come Up to My Office." The other, which brings the first act to a smashing conclusion, comes just after the jury has returned its "guilty" verdict. Suddenly all the courtroom furniture is whisked off stage, and the spectators, jury foreman and prosecutor surround the isolated Frank couple, joining together in a furious, demonic ragtime dance of vengeance and celebration devised by choreographer Patricia Birch.

Before "Parade" comes to its shattering conclusion, with another parade, the musical spends much of its second half focused on the love story of the Franks and of her efforts to clear his name. This segment, including a quiet picnic for two that immediately precedes Leo Frank’s violent end, contains the soaring duet, "All the Wasted Time," grandly sung by the clarion voices of Brent Carver’s Leo and Carolee Carmello’s Lucille.
In compressing the political, religious, social, moral and personal issues involved in Frank’s haunting story, book writer Uhry ("Driving Miss Daisy") has concentrated on several iconic figures in the supporting cast: a dissolute newspaper reporter (Evan Pappas) who sensationalizes the Frank case, a sinister publisher (John Leslie Wolfe) who builds mob hatred against Frank, an aggressive prosecutor (Herndon Lackey) determined to nail Frank with a career-boosting conviction ("We don’t need another nigger hanging from a tree," he says), a caricatured fat, indolent defense attorney (J.B. Adams), and a shady, suspicious black man (Rufus Bonds Jr.) whose testimony is most damaging to Frank’s cause and who, in a stunningly staged and sung chain-gang sequence, later roars defiance at any effort to discredit him.

In a production filled with marvelous performances, Carver’s Frank is outstanding. A singer/actor who won a Tony award for his portrayal of the effeminate prisoner Molina in "Kiss of the Spider Woman," Carver in this instance makes a compelling, charismatic character out of a shy, nervous and colorless person.

Coming in at about $5.2 million, relatively low in these costly days of producing, "Parade" does not have an excess of heavy scenery, its dominant image being a huge tree that is ever present in the back of the stage. What it does have, through inventive use of trap doors and playing levels, is a high degree of skilled stagecraft. Beyond that, it also has an inspired rush of theatrical artistry that, like "Ragtime" and "Titanic" before it, takes a symbolic segment of 20th Century history and turns it into a grand music drama for our time.


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