Parade, the 1998 Broadway musical now undergoing its first New York revival, is not an uplifting show. The book by Alfred Uhry (author of Driving Miss Daisy), with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, tells the unfortunate story of Leo Frank, a New York Jew transplanted to Atlanta, falsely scapegoated for the murder of a 13-year-old an old white girl in her pencil factory in 1913; the wave of anti-Semitism that led to his conviction and lynching two years later spurred both the formation of the Anti-Defamation League and the resurgence of the KKK. The show does not obscure the tragic facts of the case: attendees of the new production, which just moved to the Bernard B Jacobs Theater after a lauded run at New York City Center, will take their seats for a photographic screening of the “Leo Frank in Marietta, Georgia.
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With the destinies established from the start, it’s remarkable that Parade is so dynamic and moving. That’s largely thanks to Brown’s Tony-winning score and orchestrations – musical director and conductor Tom Murray’s version is lush and soothing from the outset – and a top-to-bottom list of excellent vocal performances, notably by leads Ben Platt and Micaela Diamante.
Platt, as newlywed Leo Frank, translates the best of his polite and Tony-winning performance as Evan Hansen into a biting character: an ingrained embarrassment, a sense of nervous strangeness, quick flashes of unwitting humor. As his wife Lucille, a Southern Jewish belle befuddled by her husband’s Yankee ways, Diamond exudes a hard-won ferocity understated by the book’s few focused moments on her character. His command of a Southern accent is inconsistent, sometimes bewildering—actually, Southern accents are more weird than specific (Brooklyn-raised Platt’s Leo speaks without one)—but his singing voice is bright. Along with Platt (who, after a bad detour to a film career with the film Dear Evan Hansen, recalls being comfortable in musical theater), the two, in song, are painfully good.
Director Michael Arden, along with production designer Dane Laffrey, scales down a production that hammers out shocking and resonant themes with astute and evocative efficiency. Most of the show’s action takes place on a raised platform in the center of the unvarnished wooden stage, as if hastily erected – a gallows, soap box, or stage for justice from the reactionary, hate-filled mob . The chorus surrounds the action on desks and chairs – watching, lurking, presumably absorbing whatever story is convenient.
A romantic vision of the Civil War, for example, that dates back to 1863, where the show begins as a young Confederate soldier leaves his sweetheart for battle. A retelling of the defeat, 50 years later, by young and old white Atlanta as a glorious “lost cause” for “the old red hills of home.” The opportunistic use of the murder of young Mary Phagan (Erin Rose Doyle) by prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (Paul Alexander Norman, perfectly slimy) for political gain – a black man, as factory night watchman Newt Lee (Eddie Cooper ) or ex-con Jim Conley (Alex Joseph Grayson, a two-time scene-stealer), wasn’t good enough, so Dorsey blamed the crime on a Jew. The frenzied web of anti-Semitic hysteria fueled by journalist Britt Craig (Jay Armstrong Johnson), leading to Leo Frank’s swift conviction in the first act. (Platt spends intermission on stage, while Leo Frank hangs out in his prison cell.) In the second act, there is Dorsey’s attraction to xenophobic extremism for political expediency (sound familiar?) as the governor Slaton (Sean Alan Krill) has a moment of conscience and revises the fragility of Frank’s conviction.
The consistently amazing performance can’t overcome a few issues with the book. For one thing, we never got as much insight into the Frankish Jewish community as there was one, in Atlanta. The Franks’ wedding receives rather superficial treatment in the first act, although Platt and Diamond’s cathartic duets of This Is Not Over Yet and All the Wasted Time (reason enough to see the play) make up for this considerably in the second. There are few morally ambiguous players here: Governor Slaton changed his mind late, but overall the characters are either unambiguously good or bad or stuck in their destinies by Jim Crow Southern pressures. It can be difficult to connect, even if the musical performances overwhelm you and add a touch of scorn to the narrative.
Still, it’s hard not to feel the immediacy of this awakening, both because of the committed performances and the cyclical nature of convenient forgetting and false remembrance, which pays off for the stories we tell. During the show, projections on the back curtains display actual photographs, character names and dates, as well as historical photos of Leo’s factory, the governor’s mansion, 1910s Atlanta, his lynching site, and more. It’s a move that might seem exaggerated, heavy-handed, but I found it particularly moving: real people, whose complexities might otherwise be lost to time; real places, which are not as far away as we would like to think.