As I waited in the lobby at The Footlighters' Stained Glass Theatre in Newport, someone said, "Well, it begins with a murder and ends with a lynching. It's not your typical musical." She was describing Parade, a 1999 Tony Award-winning musical getting its regional premiere this month by a strong Cincinnati-area community theater. This is tough subject matter — and the story is true.
In 1913, Leo Frank, a Brooklyn Jew working in Atlanta, was accused of murdering a 13-year-old girl employed in the pencil factory he supervised. Frank was convicted of the crime on flimsy circumstantial evidence, a verdict driven by anti-Semitism and inflammatory news coverage as much as any real demand for justice. When his death sentence was subsequently commuted, Frank was kidnapped from a prison farm and lynched. Not only did his trial prompt the establishment of the Anti-Defamation League, many of the people involved in Frank's brutal execution played a role in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
This difficult slice of American history proves a potent catalyst for a musical. Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry have created a work of tragic and operatic dimensions.
Post-Civil War bitterness, uneasy race relations and anti-Semitism fuel the story. But the musical is humanized (and made all the more tragic) via the tale of Frank's crumbling marriage, which recovers as his wife Lucille fights to establish his innocence.
Brown's score and lyrics merge powerful melodies of anguish and passion with familiar marching tunes of the period. The play begins and ends with parades marking "Confederate Memorial Day," a regional holiday that evokes long-felt anger. Uhry's book brings to life many of the historical figures, vividly re-creating events surrounding Leo Frank's demise.
Community theater veterans Dee Anne Bryll and Ed Cohen use a cast of 28 for Parade, often creating memorable stage pictures such as the parades and Frank's trial. But they also know how to stage moments of evolving personal intimacy. As Frank (Darin Art) and Lucille (Pamela Kay Day) are buffeted by forces tearing their marriage asunder, they first sit at opposite sides of the stage, speaking across a vast distance. In subsequent conversations, as their relationship becomes more steadfast in the face of false accusations, they move closer and closer to each other.
Art and Day are excellent as the conflicted couple: He has a powerful voice and stage presence, but also conveys Frank's uncertainty and nervous nature. She grows from meek and put-upon (during the trial she appears on the verge of physical collapse) to confident and loving. Her portrait of Lucille's growing love and strength ("You Don't Know This Man" and their duet, "It's Not Over Yet") drives the show's tragic resolution.
Secondary characters keep Parade marching along. Frederic Tacon is a loquacious alcoholic reporter who realizes too late his role in inciting the public's blood lust. Rick Kramer is the unscrupulous prosecutor, while Jim Curtis plays the governor who eventually sees the wrong that has been perpetrated. Ken Early portrays an African-American janitor persuaded to testify falsely against Frank (his character is likely the actual murderer); Charles McClinon is a night-watchman who finds the murdered girl and offers several key moments of emotional commentary on Atlanta's heated racial environment. Taylor Reynolds (who is 14) plays murder victim Mary Phagan with the necessary innocence and beauty. Deana Tully as Mary's mother has a powerful musical moment ("My Child Will Forgive Me") during her testimony.
One must bear in mind that this is not a professional production. Unfortunate sound problems marred the performance I attended, and the orchestra (positioned behind the audience in the one-time church's choir loft) was too loud, frequently drowning out lyrics essential to understanding the story.
But moody lighting and an impressionistic set overhung by a malevolently twisted tree worked well (I recommend reducing the fog effect sustained throughout the show), resulting in an impressive production that's certainly worth seeing. Grade: A-
PARADE, presented by The Footlighters, Inc., continues through May 20.