By: Samuel L. Leiter
March 24, 2023: Parade, the topically relevant 1998 musical now being smashingly revived on Broadway, tells the truth-based story of Leo Frank (Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen). Frank was the pencil factory manager–a Jew, transplanted from Brooklyn to Marietta, GA—who, in what is widely viewed as a miscarriage of justice, was tried and convicted in 1913 for having raped and murdered Mary Phagan (Erin Rose Doyle), a 13-year-old employee. Even more egregious was what happened in 1915 after Governor John M. Slaton (Sean Allan Krill) commuted his sentence from capital punishment to life: a mob snatched Frank from prison and lynched him in what has become an iconic incident of violent anti-Semitism.
The event earns much of its stinging notoriety from its focus on a Jew at a time and place when similar cases invariably involved Blacks. Ironically, it was spurious testimony from Black witnesses that helped convict Frank of his alleged crimes. I say “alleged” because, for all the findings that led to Slaton’s belated questions, the case remains under investigation even today, as mentioned in a projected title at Parade’s conclusion.
Parade’s original production, conceived and directed at Lincoln Center in 1998 by Harold Prince, with an often powerful score by Jason Robert Brown (Mr. Saturday Night) and a book by Georgia playwright Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy)—whose great-uncle owned Frank’s factory!—met with mixed reviews; nonetheless, it won two Tony Awards and six Drama Desk Awards, although reaching only 84 post-preview performances. It later had several important iterations, including one in 2007 at London’s Donmar Warehouse reported to have made a number of improvements in the material.
The current version—incisively directed by Michael Arden (Once on This Island) and smartly co-choreographed by Lauren Yalango-Grant and Christopher Cree Grant—derives from the enthusiastically received Encores concert production seen this past fall at the City Center; much of that cast is intact, most notably Mr. Platt and Micaela Diamond (The Cher Show) as the newlywed Franks. Leo Frank is a Yankee, feeling out of place in his new environment, while his wife, Lucille, is a Georgia belle. The Franks’ marriage, at first somewhat distant, grows passionately entwined over the course of Leo’s troubles, forming one of Parade’s more resonant themes.
Themes of a more socially significant nature include the venality of the press, represented by ambitious reporter Britt Craig (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and virulently anti-Semitic editor Tom Watson (Manoel Felciano); corruptive political ambition, seen driving both Watson and prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (Paul Alexander Nolan), the former eventually becoming a senator and the latter governor; the fallibility of Black witnesses—especially an ex-con named Jim Conley (Alex Joseph Grayson) facing time for a prison escape—manipulated by the authorities to fabricate their testimony; and, of course, prejudicial Deep South attitudes toward Yankees, Jews, and Blacks, expressed through mob violence, one more timely element. Parade is yet another in the growing list of current works preoccupied with issues of social justice seen on New York stages.
Before getting to the meat of the story, Parade establishes the background to its world by opening during the Civil War as a handsome young Confederate soldier (Jeff Edgerton)—his torso unnecessarily bare to show off his Planet Fitness pecs—leaves his sweetheart to go off to battle. The scene shifts to Memorial Day 50 years later to reveal a South still celebrating its Confederate past, parading almost as if it defeated, rather than lost to, the Union forces.
The multi-scened action proceeds apace on Dane Laffrey’s set consisting mainly of exposed lighting instruments above and to the sides of a raised, minimally furnished platform stage on which much of the action transpires. Arden’s imaginative, fast-paced staging incorporates numerous projections by Sven Ortel of period photographs, including not only specific locations but portraits of the real people on whom the libretto is based, vividly bringing the reality of the circumstances to life without recourse to cumbersome scene changes. These elements, combined with Heather Gilbert’s consistently exquisite lighting design and Susan Hilferty’s convincing, earth-toned costumes, offer a rich visual feast that perfectly evokes the period.
Uhry’s two-act book succinctly covers many details during its two and a half hours, effectively blending intimate scenes with spectacular ones, but never losing sight of the human drama. Brown’s score, with lyrics that help dramatize the action rather than standing on their own, blends modern folk-rock sounds with period styles like blues, ragtime, chain gang rhythms, and gospel. The music may fall short of numbers you hum on your way out, but, as superbly performed by this marvelous ensemble (many actors play several roles), it holds you tooth and nail.
Mr. Platt and Ms. Diamond do their damnedest as the Franks, although I admit I’m one who, while appreciating his various talents, sometimes fails to see the charm in the former’s tremolo singing and high-strung concentration. Ms. Diamond scores sharply with such songs as “You Don’t Know This Man” and “Do It Alone,” while Mr. Platt’s best numbers include his moving duets with her, “This Is Not Over Yet” and “All the Wasted Time.”
There are any number of noteworthy performances in the cast of over two dozen, among them that of Howard McGillin, in two supporting roles, including Judge Doan; Mr. Krill as Gov. Slaton, forced to reexamine the case when Lucille keeps after him; Mr. Nolan as insidious prosecutor Hugh Dorsey; and, most memorably, the show-stealing Mr. Grayson as convict Jim Conley (some consider him to have been the actual killer), who agrees to offer false testimony in exchange for a legal favor.. He, too, in a chain gang scene, shows off his torso, one so sculpturally ripped it actually distracts from what he’s singing about in “Feel the Rain Fall.” Broadway’s familiar predilection for cheesecake continues to evolve into one for beefcake, the nearby Junior’s notwithstanding.
It doesn’t rain on this Parade but that doesn’t mean your cheeks won’t be wet when the show is over.
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 W. 45th Street, NY
Photography: Joan Marcus