1998-12-13
Time Out NY
Sam Whitehead

If you think nothing good comes of murder, think again. That may sound macabre, but if the 1912 slaying of young Mary Phagan, Employee 507 of the National Pencil Company, had never occurred, sparking the wrongful conviction of Leo Frank, then playwright Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy, The Last Night of Ballyhoo) wouldnít have had the basis for a work of such immense, virtuous power as Parade. Consequently, the theater world would have been denied something it sorely neededóa compelling new American musical that stands boldly on its own, free of the gluttony of tasteless special effects and overwrought design. In short, a musical that wins. Period.

Set mostly in Marietta, Georgia, and largely sung-through, Parade employs composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown’s 31 distinctive numbers — primarily somber in tone, yet incorporating a refreshing variety of musical styles — to tell the tragic true tale of Leo Frank (a brilliant Brent Carver), a Northern Jew and outsider relocated to Georgia by his marriage to the genteel Southerner Lucille (the potent Carolee Carmello). The bespectacled loner was falsely accused of the Confederate Memorial Day killing of a 13-year-old Phagan (Christy Carlson Romano), a child laborer whose body was found in the basement of the pencil factory that Frank managed. Fueled by racial and anti-Semitic tension — and colored by the sensational writing of one drunk bum of a reporter, Britt Craig (Evan Pappas), as well as the shady political ambitions of Governor John M Slaton (John Hickok), Marietta D.A. Hugh Dorsey (Herndon Lackey) and the white supremacist editor of The Jeffersonian,Tom Watson (John Leslie Wolfe) — Frank’s subsequent trial was a swift sham, and his sentence severe: death by hanging. After reexamining the case two years later, in 1914, Governor Slaton commuted Frankís sentence to life, a move so unpopular that a lynch mob broke the accused out of his cell, drove him back to Marietta and hanged him from a tree in the center of town.

Obviously, Parade is not for those who prefer lavish fluff to serious theater. But while it raises issues of social and moral concern, it’s not without a few humorous moments (set to the Rosemary Clooney classic “Come On-A My House,” Carver’s courtroom-fantasy dance, about inviting young girls up to his office, is priceless). It also tells one hell of a gripping story, and ultimately it couldnít be more devastating.

That Parade is so taut is due in no small part to the legendary theatrical prowess of conceiver-director Harold Prince. He manages the Herculean task of eliciting vivid, first-rate performances from the entire 36-member cast. Simple yet consistently striking, Prince’s overall vision is beautifully implemented by the luminous lighting of Howell Binkley, the stark elegance of Riccardo Hernandez’s sets, and the subdued nature of Judith Dolan’s turn-of-the-century costumes. A magnificent effort by all involved, this production resonated long after the lights come up; it’s a Parade you don’t want to miss.


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