Parade

Now that the western sun has set on Arena Stage’s Oklahoma!, Washington is in danger of being bereft of glorious singing voices and exemplary choral work. That void will be filled by Ford Theatre’s thrillingly sung Parade, a co-production with Theater J, directed with skill and sensitivity by Stephen Rayne.

The two musicals couldn’t be further apart. Where Oklahoma! depicts the rosy hopes and growing pains of America at the turn of the century, Parade portrays a grim and ugly period in the nation’s history.

Jenny Fellner as Lucille Frank and Euan Morton as Leo Frank (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

In 1913 Atlanta, Leo Frank (Euan Morton), a Northerner and a Jew, was accused—on flimsy circumstantial evidence—of the murder of Mary Phagan (Lauren Williams), a 13-year-old worker in a pencil factory.

The sham of a trial, fueled by media sensationalism and anti-Semitic sentiments, led to Frank being condemned to execution. His wife Lucille (an impassioned and resolute Jenny Fellner) appealed to then-governor John Slayton (Stephen F. Schmidt) to re-examine the case and Frank’s sentence was reduced to jail time with a pardon in view. Then, a Klan-like lynch mob broke into the prison and hauled Frank away, hanging him from a tree in the Georgia town where Mary Phagan once lived.

Not exactly the most toe-tapping of topics for musical theater, but for all its somber themes of long-held racism and suspicion-bred hysteria, Parade is stirring and powerful.

Much of the show’s subdued majesty can be attributed to Jason Robert Brown’s score that blends period tunes with a ragtime and bluesy feel with soaring ballads and well-drawn character songs. His muted composition is given colorations by the superb cast, led by the silken vocals and steely focus of Mr. Morton. With delicacy and understatement, Mr. Morton portrays Leo Frank as a black-and-white man in a pastel world.

In his dark suits and almost prissy preciseness, Frank is profoundly uncomfortable and lost in Atlanta—a longed-for evocation of Antebellum glory rendered in Tony Cisek’s red-brick colonnade and marble columned set. This sense of stubborn nostalgia is reinforced bv Wade Laboissonniere’s costumes, a swirl of penny candy-colored gowns, cream-colored suits and fanciful hats. Mr. Morton’s Frank is an unwelcome trespasser in a strange land and he cloaks his bewilderment at the customs and culture of the South in a hard shell of bitterness and defiance.

He is not remotely likeable—except in a sizzling fantasy sequence during the trial where Frank is dangerously seductive acting out the false testimony of factory girls accusing him of lechery in the vaudevillian song “Come Up to My Office.” By the second act, he has softened into a flesh-and-blood man, showing glints of humor and humanity, especially in the 11th hour blossoming of tenderness in his marriage to Lucille, as seen in the songs “This Is Not Over Yet” and “All the Wasted Time.”

Alfred Uhry’s book, on the other hand, is gray and relentless, painting Frank and his angelic wife as bigger saints than Edith Stein, a nice young Jewish couple persecuted by an endless string of Dixie-bred baddies. You are force-fed how to feel about the musical’s characters—good and bad—until a sense of resentment builds.

However, James Konicek appears to be having a ball playing pure evil, as the politically-ambitious prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, and Will Gartshore similarly brings smarmy charm to the role of a rabidly anti-Semitic newspaper publisher. Chris Sizemore also strikes a vividly vile note as a bored and boozy reporter who stokes the hype on the Frank case to resuscitate his career.

Kellee Knighten Hough and Kevin McAllister have a triumphant turn as two black servants watching someone else get victimized for a change in the ironic cakewalk “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’.”

Parade, for all its aural glories and seminal life lessons, comes off as preaching to the choir wrapped in song. We’re sitting in Ford’s Theatre, for heaven’s sake, we might have a pretty good idea already about how racism and mob mentality can divide a people.

Parade runs thru Oct 30, 2011 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St NW, Washington, DC.
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Parade

Book by Alfred Uhry
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Stephen Rayne
Produced by Theater J and Ford’s Theatre
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard

Through October 30 at Ford’s Theatre in a co-production with Theatre J

Running time: 2 and 1/2 hours, plus one 15-minute intermission

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Comments

  1. A great review that captured my sentiments about the show. Euan Morton was fantasic — and as you said, it did feel preachy. I thought that he was a good enough actor that the audience did not need to be told how to feel – he could have evoked the feeling on his own.

  2. I agree with your review, though I don’t really feel that Dorsey was portrayed as entirely evil, the way Tom Watson was. There were moments that Konicek seemed conflicted about what he was doing–I found it to be one of the few nuanced characters. That Leo Frank isn’t likeable in the first act makes the preachiness tolerable. Morton’s transformation to perform “Come Up to My Office” was just fantastic.

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