2000-10-02
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Joe Adcock

For nearly a century, lynching was a popular form of entertainment in America. It died out some 40 years ago. "Parade," playing at the 5th Avenue Musical Theatre, revives the aesthetics of lynching but not the ethics.
The creators of "Parade" stage a lynching. But, of course, no one really gets killed. And, since the lynch mob is portrayed as cretinous and vicious, the audience gets to sit there and feel somehow superior to those villainous oafs depicted up there on the stage.

Yes, well, a pretend lynching is certainly better than a real one. And feeling morally superior to cretins and oafs may have its gratifications. But still, "Parade" is obnoxious.

From its very beginning, "Parade" is full of ominous portents. A stricken-looking tree stands there just waiting for what blues singer Billie Holiday called "Strange Fruit." And that tree dominates Riccardo Hernandez’s scenery all through the show. Street scenes, factory scenes, courtroom scenes, jail scenes — no matter what is going on — the hanging tree is waiting there in full view.

The victim is Leo Frank, a New York Jew who is persecuted by loathsome politicians, judges, journalists and ordinary citizens. The story is based on fact. A 1913 Atlanta murder was indeed pinned on one Leo Frank. He was convicted and sentenced to hang. Then the obvious blunders in the prosecution were publicized. So Georgia’s governor commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Upon which the cretins and oafs hauled Frank out of jail and strung him up.

No ambitious work of musical theater is quite as unsubtle as "Parade." Even the most doom-laden shows — "Phantom of the Opera," "South Pacific" or "Miss Saigon," for example — offer a bit of drama. The doom doesn’t seem so inevitable. The story doesn’t plod so heavily, so relentlessly, toward its foreordained conclusion.

The first notes of Jason Robert Brown’s score are sinister. The first scene of Alfred Uhry’s libretto is full of foreboding. A Confederate Army soldier returns home to Georgia. He has been whipped. And he wants to whip. Lynching — that’s the answer.

The first bits of direction by Harold Prince, of lighting by Howell Binkley and costuming by Judith Dolan, of choreography by Patricia Birch all give intimations of grim things to come. Prince’s actors get right into the grimness.
In case you hadn’t heard, African Americans are libidinous, frivolous and treacherous. Or so the samples on display in "Parade" would have us believe. Poor Southern Caucasians are stupid, ignorant and violent.
And there are other stereotypes that get a bit of reinforcement in "Parade." The journalist is a drunk. The judge is incompetent. The politicians are immoral. The Jew is smart and supercilious. "Parade" sets a record for most threadbare stereotypes reinforced during three hours.

David Pittu, as Frank, is appealing in a sacrificial-lamb way. He sings and dances well. He exudes a certain dignity. He is transformed by his suffering. Oh, and here’s another stereotype, this one is sentimental: Frank is transformed by the love of a good woman.

Andrea Burns plays Frank’s wife. She, too, is transformed by suffering. Burns goes from dithering Southern belle to outspoken crusader. You may have heard that suffering builds the character. And so it is with Leo and Lucille Frank. "Parade" contradicts no cliches.

It does ignore, however, the obvious: Drama has to be dramatic. It needs some plausible and engaging conflict. It needs a diverting subplot. "Parade" ran for three months on Broadway in 1998. Against very light competition, it won a bunch of awards. Awards not withstanding, "Parade" is quite literally hopeless.


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