“These people make me tense,” sings Leo Frank early in the dark musical Parade. “It’s like a foreign land.”
If 1913 Atlanta feels alien to Frank, a transplanted New York Jew and the well-educated, bookish superintendent of a pencil factory, he feels alien to Atlantans, too. When a 13-year-old girl is found murdered in the factory, Frank’s strangeness — in a hurried, rigged, and politically pressured police investigation egged on by a racist, populist press — proves to be his downfall.
Emphasizing “race, class, and religious bias” and regional historical resentments, “Parade touches on many themes that are sadly still relevant today,” Christina A. Coakley and Susan Marie Rhea, directors of the Keegan Theatre’s new production, write in their program note.
That’s an understatement. Based on all-too-true events, it couldn’t be more timely. It holds up a not so distant mirror to cunning pols’ best efforts today to Make America Hate Again. Recently, in Dahlonega, only an hour from Atlanta, the Ku Klux Klan put up a banner. And as The Washington Post reported, that was only the latest in a number of hate-speech incidents around the nation, never mind the hate crimes such voices engender.
Parade, a 1998 Tony winner for its book by Alfred Uhry, and its music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, delves into such chauvinistic madness. Artistically ambitious and musically challenging, it melds Sondheim-like dissonant theatrical gloom with gospel, dance hall, Vaudeville, and blues idioms. Moreover, it (somewhat awkwardly) embeds a tale of reawakened love between Leo and Lucille Frank within the tragedy of Frank’s imprisonment and eventual lynching.
The fearless Keegan troupe, mustering its relatively modest-sized cast and 10-piece orchestra, fares quite well, despite some ragged edges. Standouts are Michael Innocenti as Leo Frank, Eleanor Todd as his wife Lucille, and Malcolm Lee as Jim Conley, an ex-con who works at Frank’s pencil factory and helps frame him for the murder. The ensemble numbers, too, pack serious punch.
The orchestra, under musical director Jake Null, is generally confident but tentative at times. Also problematic, most of the cast’s southern accents, in speaking and singing, come and go, and when they are present, they vary in intensity. The directors really need to decide, on this front, whether Keegan is in or out and guide their players accordingly. (My vote would be to go very light as these things tend to veer toward the stereotypically fried and green.)
For some supporting players, the score’s vocal demands and range prove a bit much. But others excel. Christopher Gillespie and James Finley, for instance, as the trial’s judge and prosecutor respectively, memorably inject southern slime into their Dixie pride in the second-act number “The Glory.” Gillespie, especially, has a great Stacey Keach type presence and a big baritone voice that he wields wisely. Finley errs toward the understated, which is a good instinct, but he could stand to notch up the guile behind his character’s choir-boy patina.
“A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’” explores topsy-turvy racial scapegoating, and Lee, along with Patrick M. Doneghy, Carl Williams, and Ashley K. Nicholas, attack the song’s ironies and harmonies with gusto. Timothy Hayes Lynch and Jennifer Lyons Pagnard, as Governor “Jack” Slaton and his wife Sally, click as a tender, time-tested couple when his careerism runs up against his conscience. The script falters, though, in giving Slaton the dance song “Pretty Music,” which undermines the character’s gravitas. You can see what Brown is after — contrasting that pretty music with ugly political machinations — but it would work better as an ensemble tune and not the governor’s.
The success of Keegan’s Parade, however, rests primarily on the strengths of three roles.
Michael Innocenti (a piquant name in the context of this role, don’t you think?) is a marvel, bringing wry pathos to Leo Frank as the fish out of water trying to do right by his wife and get ready to start a family. The portrayal requires a journey from drudge to lover to martyr, as well as a devious alter-ego as the prosecution would have us picture him. With melancholy might and splendid vocal control (even through a mic glitch in Tuesday’s first act), Innocenti forces us to feel Frank’s regret and terror, fragility and integrity.
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Eleanor Todd as Lucille, aside from the accent problem mentioned earlier, is an excellent counterpart. Beyond her luminous singing, she conveys the frustrations of being belittled as a southern woman and ostracized as the wife of a slandered suspect. Vivid also is her sadness that a love at first sight but soon dimmed is now rekindled only on the brink of tragedy. The Franks’ duet “All the Wasted Time” is heartbreaking.
Malcolm Lee, as Conley, tears up his second-act blues number as he’s pulled from the chain gang for a quick follow-up interrogation by the governor. Roiling with rage and pent-up sexual turmoil, he’s a showstopping lion. I do fear for his voice, though, when he’s turning up the dial to 11 this early in the show’s run.
Beside the minor mic trouble, production quality was ace. Matthew Keenan’s set design is spare but versatile, particularly as strategically lit by Colin Dieck, with thoughtful and well-timed sound design by Gordon Nimmo-Smith. Sydney Moore’s costumes set the clock back handsomely without screaming “period detail” at us.
In all, Keegan’s Parade is well worth seeing, a bold reminder, as if we needed one, of America’s habitual self-crippling bigotries as well as its better angels.
Parade . Book by Alfred Uhry . Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown . Directed by Christina A. Coakley and Susan Marie Rhea . Music directed by Jake Null . Choreographed by Rachel Leigh Dolan . Cast: Michael Innocenti, Eleanor J. Todd, Malcolm Lee, Cassie Cope, Ricky Drummond, James Finley, Timothy Hayes Lynch, Chad Wheeler, Chris Gillespie, Ava Silva, Harrison Smith, Ashley K. Nicholas, Patrick M. Doneghy, John Loughney, Carl Williams, Molly Janiga, Hillary Thelin, Retta Laumann, Jennifer Lyons Pagnard, Caroline Wolfson . Scenic Designer: Matthew J. Keenan . Lighting Designer: Colin Dieck . Hair and Make Up Designer: Craig Miller . Set Dressing and Properties Designers: Gadgetgrlz, Deb Crerie and Kay Rzasa . Properties and Set Dressing Assistant: Katrina Wiskup . Costume Designer: Sydney Moore . Costume & Hair Assistant: Shannon Marie Sheridan . Sound Designer: Gordon Nimmo-Smith . Sound Engineer: William Wacker . Dramaturg: Lauren Miller .Stage Manager: Nikki Hoffpauir . Assistant Stage Managers: Jenny Rubin & Karinn Cologne . Produced by Keegan Theatre . Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.