The Toronto Star
Vit Wagner

NEW YORK – Garth Drabinsky was not here last night to absorb the thunderous applause that greeted the opening of Livent’s Parade in the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Centre.

But it’s impossible to imagine that this unlikely project, a musical based on the actual story of a Jewish factory manager who is lynched by Klansmen after being convicted of raping and murdering a young girl, ever would have seen the light of day without the push it received from the ousted Livent founder.

Drabinsky, who worked with director Harold Prince in launching the show, isn’t even mentioned in the program. He is like one of those purged Soviet Politburo officials whose image has been airbrushed out of the receiving line at the May Day parade.

Much of the audience’s adulation was heaped on another Canadian, Brent Carver, whose portrayal of the lead role seems certain to earn him his second Tony Award nomination in five years. Carver, a B.C. native who starred last summer in Soulpepper’s Don Carlos at Harbourfront, already has a Tony on his shelf for Livent’s first Broadway show, Kiss Of The Spider Woman.

As Leo Frank, a Brooklyn Jew who moves to Atlanta to run a pencil factory, Carver plays an initially ungiving and unlovable outsider transformed by adversity. At the opening of the story, in 1913, Frank chooses to go to work rather than attend a parade held to honour Confederate Civil War veterans. A day later, the dead body of 13-year-old Mary Phagan (Christy Carlson Romano) is found in the factory basement.

Frank is accused and, in anti-Semitic hysteria that follows his arrest, convicted and sentenced to death. The governor (John Hickok), having become convinced that Frank did not receive a fair trial, commutes the penalty to life imprisonment.

Fuelled by Christian fundamentalism and a lingering hatred of Yankees, Frank is hauled from prison and hung from a tree, its disfigured bough hanging ominously over the stage throughout the production.

There is the strong suggestion that Jim Conley (Rufus Bonds, Jr), a floor sweeper whose testimony was instrumental in convicting Frank, actually committed the crime. But the musical’s case for Frank’s innocence is less rooted in fact than in writer Alfred Uhry’s subtly persuasive depiction of him as a man incapable of perpetrating such an act.

Carver, using his unparalleled capacity for emotional detail to gradually build sympathy for the character, smoothly transforms Frank from an uptight number cruncher into a man of great heart and spiritual depth.

His plea of innocence in the trial-ending number “It’s Hard To Speak My Heart” lifts the material, which to that point had been largely procedural, to another level. Elsewhere, he vents his comedic side in “Come Up To My Office,” a fantasy cabaret tune that plays to the public’s perception of Frank as a devious lecher.

This is not by any means a one-man show. Carver is wonderfully partnered by Carolee Carmello as Lucille Frank, the loyal, perservering wife who tirelessly champions her husband’s innocence. Their final scene together, a moment of joy and unexpected lust, is a soaring counterpoint to Frank’s emotional appeal to the jury. This time he is not alone.

Of the supporting cast, Evan Pappas is deft at providing comic relief as a boozing newspaperman who spends the first acting fanning the flames of Frank’s conviction and the second beating the drum for his exoneration – all in the interest of keeping the story alive.

Parade’s success owes more to its performances and the way that Prince and Uhry have contoured the story than it does to the comparatively undistinguished contribution of composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown, whose score is a serviceable rendering of various styles, from gospel to Copland.

Drabinsky deserves credit somewhere in there, too.