When Parade first appeared on stage in 1999, it was a short-lived production, but one which managed to take home two Tony awards. It seems unlikely that this new rendition at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum will do anything to soften the stark contrast between critical acclaim and uncertainty from the theater-going public; its subject matter remains divisive, certainly not what anyone seeking the feel good pleasure of a musical comedy should choose to see, and it’s difficult to be entirely certain just what it is the audience is meant to leave feeling, beyond extraordinarily unsettled.
Yet extraordinary is exactly what this production is. With its all-star cast, deft direction from Rob Ashford and the intimate setting the Taper provides, this new Parade is at once compelling and unnerving, in no small part because of T.R. Knight, making his return to theater with a bravura performance as Leo Frank.
With a book by Alfred Uhry and music and lyrics by the brilliant Jason Robert Brown, Parade tells the grim — and tragically true — tale of the 1913 trial of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn Jew in Atlanta, Georgia, accused of the rape and murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, a worker in the pencil factory where Frank was superintendent.
While it’s still unknown who killed Mary, there is no doubt that the Frank trial remains one of the great miscarriages of justices of the twentieth century, and this is the story that Parade tells. Even as it portrays Leo as incontrovertibly innocent, it does so without pointing a finger at any more likely suspect (although it hints, as does history, that one of the strongest witnesses against Leo, Jim Conley, may have been the true murderer) and without fully condemning those who carried the two year trial to its final grisly end.
Perhaps it is this very ambiguity — the great heart of Parade which it allows its audience to accept and understand the actions of an emotionally overwrought mob — that undermines it, even as it makes it great. Few of the characters in this show are beyond redemption, but at the show’s very center, Leo Frank makes himself more than a little difficult to love. It’s necessary that we see Leo as history paints him, in order to comprehend how this might have come to pass, but for much of the first act, it’s easier to hope he is acquitted for the sake of his wife Lucille than for his own.
There is no denying, however, that though cold and brusque, Leo is a fascinating character and T.R. Knight does not disappoint in the role. Never once shying from the pride and short temper which contribute to the ill will harbored against Leo, Knight remains stiff and withdrawn for much of the show, which serves only to make numbers like “Come Up to My Office” and “This Is Not Over Yet” into showstoppers when he finally cuts loose. He has the kind of voice that seems absolutely made for this part and a strange knack for making the audience love and feel for Leo, even as Leo holds everyone in his life at arm’s length.
Equal credit should be given, however, to Lara Pulver in her performance as Lucille Frank. Having originated the role in the recent West End production, Miss Pulver has had time to polish the part to perfection and indeed quickly proves to be one of the most compelling things about the entire production. Her rendition of “You Don’t Know This Man” is movingly understated, replete with a quiet dignity one cannot help but respect.
Indeed, the cast is, with few exceptions, stunning. Michael Beresse is a powerhouse as both Britt Craig, the reporter covering the trial for the Atlanta Georgian, and Governor Slaton. There is nothing to rival his chemistry with Charlotte d’Amboise during the “Pretty Music” dance sequence between the governor and his wife, unless it’s the skill with which they tackle their steps. Miss d’Amboise is remarkable herself, although moreso as Mrs. Slaton, unfortunately, than as Mrs. Phagan, the dead girl’s mother, in which she is ever so slightly over-the-top. Christian Hoff is given the opportunity to shine as district attorney Hugh Dorsey in a new number entitled “Somethin’ Ain’t Right,” in which Dorsey all but outright states his intention to frame Frank for political gain.
It’s David St. Louis, however, as Jim Conley, who really steals the show, particularly during “Feel the Rain Fall,” his rich voice sending chills down one’s back for no discernible reason but the dark power of it, and newcomer Curt Hansen stands on the other side of the divide as Frankie Epps, his young voice innocent even as he calls for Frank’s blood. Rose Szeniak’s Mary Phagan is so charming, it seems a shame to see so little of her, although she has an added role this time, haunting the stage as a ghostly figure, an apparent representation of the Civil War South which should have been incredibly hokey and instead proved only to add to the atmosphere.
The show is very much served by the small size of the Mark Taper Forum, which makes it feel as if the audience is very much part of the action, something it can only be hoped the show’s producers will remember when they take it to New York. There are points at which this means it’s difficult to watch, so deeply engaged in the story are we — the finale of act one and the lynching of Leo, which I was not expecting to see, in particular — but with a cast as strong as this one, for much of the show, it’s harder still to look away.
See the official site for more information and some clips from the show.