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Broadway Review: `Parade’

This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on January 13, 1999. All rights reserved.

One would have to look far and wide to find a grimmer,

more horrifying story to present in musical terms than the one told

in the new musical, "Parade." Set in 1913 in Atlanta, Georgia,

the annual Memorial Day parade honoring the Confederacy is in progress.

Elsewhere in a downtown pencil factory, a teenage girl is found murdered.

It doesn’t look good for Leo Frank, the manager of the factory, who

is accused of the murder. Why? Because Leo is a Brooklyn-born, college-educated

Jew with a large vocabulary. These factors play a significant role

when Christian extremists, the biased press, and generally rampant

bigotry force the hand of local prosecutors.

Misguided by an incompetent defense attorney and railroaded by manipulated

testimony and witness tampering, Leo is convicted and sentenced to

hang. Despite his ultimately successful efforts, and those of his

Atlanta-born wife, Lucille, to reopen the case, Leo is abducted from

his jail cell and lynched.

This is the story of "Parade." That the bankrupt Livent Productions

(in association with Lincoln Center) is producing this tragic, true-life

story seems as sad as it is ironic. Unlike "Ragtime," Livent’s

sweeping melodramatic hit, "Parade" does not even profess

to envision its characters with any more insight or perception than

we can glean from newspaper reports. And the awful end appears in

sight from the very start.

Despite the fact that the musical brings together some of the finest

seasoned and young talents of the American musical theater, their

obviously impassioned collaboration brings nothing new or revelatory

to this dark chapter in American history. The fact that "Parade"

has the courage to be unrelentingly depressing is not, in itself,

a negative factor. But it doesn’t help.

The book by Pulitzer prizewinner Alfred Uhry ("Driving Miss Daisy)

seems tenaciously gripped by the facts. Jason Robert Brown has written

an impressive, quasi-operatic score which, while not melodically transporting,

is admirable for its mix of musical genres. Brown’s lyrics cannot

be faulted for the way they acutely detail each character and situation.

One may also be pleased with the unglamorized conception of the time

and place as captured by designer Riccardo Hernandez. But above all,

there is the noticeable imprint of director Harold Prince, whose fluidly

minimized staging places the terrible events just beyond the path

of the parade of the title.

"Parade" opens with a stunning scene. A young confederate

soldier who is about to go into battle feels nostalgic for "The

Old Red Hills of Home." As he moves back into the past, a resentful

old one-legged soldier replaces him, and a throng gathers to sing

a patriotic anthem, "The Dream of Atlanta." Is there less

than a subtle message about retribution here by having Don Chastain

play both the old soldier and the judge who sentences Leo? It’s a

stirring and emotion-provoking scene. It is also "Parade’s"

one and only really affecting scene.

The plot then unfolds as much just beyond the florid sentimentality

of the big parade (which returns periodically during the musical),

as it does in the shadow of a barren tree whose large black limbs

hover over the action. The tree acts as a bitter and haunting memory

of the burning of Atlanta as well as a constant reminder of Leo’s

fate.

Director Prince is no stranger to the dark side of musical theater,

having brought his masterly invention to such notably chilling musicals

as "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "Sweeney Todd."

Although co-conceived by Prince, "Parade" is undone by a pronounced

and prevailing atmosphere of doom and gloom.

Although Leo and Lucille have few scenes that effectively

reveal why or how their odd and distant (at first) marital relationship

suddenly becomes one of passionate and concerted support, Brent Carver

and Carolee Carmello give credible and dramatically persuasive performances.

They also sing up a storm of emotions.

While there are few other likable characters, there are plenty to

dislike, including the relentless prosecutor (Herndon Lackey), the

ranting anti-Semitic publisher (John Leslie Wolfe), and a bufoonish

alcoholic reporter (Evan Pappas). Some sympathy is generated for the

tenuously moral governor (John Hickok), and even for Leo’s unwittingly

misguided lawyer (J.B. Adams). And whose heart will not cry out for

the slain Mary Phagan (Christy Carlson Romano)? Although she has little

to do but be gracious, Princeton graduate Anne Torsiglieri stands

out as the governor’s wife.

Because music is mainly consigned to address flaws and weaknesses,

hatred and heartlessness, corruption and evil, there is little room

for melodic uplift here. Whether or not you want to join this earnestly

expended "Parade" will depend on how much you enjoy feeling

badly. HH

— Simon Saltzman

Parade, Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, 212-239-6200.

$40 to $75.

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