Some people say you either love a parade or you don’t. But my feelings towards, Jason Robert Brown’s, Parade , fall somewhere inbetween. The musical, based on a true story, is the retelling of a tragic lynching of a Jewish Factory Manager in 1913 in Atlanta, Georgia. Leo Frank is accused of murdering one of his young female workers. Spared the death sentence, he is remanded to a prison work farm for life. But while his wife, Lucille, his only ally, appeals his case, the Ku Klux Klan takes matters into their own hands.
Suffice it to say that I didn’t care much for Act One, but liked Act Two a lot. There’s a simple reason for this and it lies in the way the piece itself is structured. Because of the presentational style and Brechtian approach in how the story is told – we, as an audience, have no emotional investment in the characters until the second act. The main character himself, Leo Frank is a hard character to like. He is a prim, fussy, neurotic little man whose only goal in life appears to be amassing enough money so he and hs wife can live in comfort. He is diligent, dutiful, dull and dour. He makes others feel uncomfortable. Nobody seems to like him. He is, in short, a hard man to sympathize with and hence this is his downfall.
Act One is a series of musical monologues, as context and characters are introduced. In this production (co-conceived by Jorge Cousineau and Terrence J. Nolen) it all takes place (in Act One) in front of a giant framed screen suspended from the ceiling. Resembling a movie screen in the heyday of silent film, it is used in varying ways. Some are effective and some are not. Before the start of the show there are quotes about the Confederate Flag which flash on and off in a loop. This is entertaining and edifying as patrons fill up the theatre before the curtain. But in the opening song – well sung by a young, confederate soldier, (Michael Philip O’Brien) there is a picture of the same soldier projected on the screen. The picture on the screen is much larger than the actor on stage and so we of course look at the screen and not at the live actor. There are also times when characters are speaking onscreen and characters onstage are watching the screen with their backs to the audience. Are they supposed ot be watching a newsreel? Although I found it intriguing, it was ultimately confusing to me as an audience member.
However, there are times when the screen is used to great effect. There are moments when the ensemble is singing onstage and they are being videoed at the same time -- so that what is happening onstage and onscreen is simultaneous. Other than the screen, the stage is bare to the back wall of the theatre. Hanging on hooks attached to ropes and pulleys are costume pieces and hats. These are lowered or raised as the actors need them. Set pieces are moved in and out of the bare space – a bedrom vanity, an office desk, a park bench, a jail cell, a grave, a gallows. The set design by Jorge Cousineau is striking and effective and the climactic execution scene, staged by Mr. Nolen, is very well handled.
Ben Dibble gives a memorable performance as the tortured Leo Frank. We see him start out as a closed off, inflexible prig, who through adversity transforms into a grateful, loving husband. Jenny Eisenhower as his wife, Lucille, remains constant, loyal and loving throughout the play. Her interpretation of Lucille, though a very sympathetic and emotional one, does not seem to have an arc. So, in Act One when she says that she can’t go to her husband’s trial – it’s hard for us to understand why. But when she stands by his side after his conviction, it makes perfect sense. And Leo and Lucille’s love duet in Act Two, is a highpoint in the production. Kenita R. Miller stands out in the roles of Minnie and Angela as a little girl with a big voice. Derrick Cobey is exciting as Newt Lee, the night watchman who testifies against Leo and Kathryn Brunner is very sweet as the unfortuante Mary Phagan who is found murdered. Jeffrey Coon sings like Mario Lanza in his role as Brit Craig, the frustrated reporter for the Atlanta Georgian. Frustrated, that is, until the Leo Frank story breaks and makes Mr. Craig renowned in the newspaper business.
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