Atlanta, Georgia, 1913, the day of the Confederate Memorial Day Parade. A state holding on to a lost cause becomes inflamed in a media circus in “Parade,” Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s musical based on the true story of Leo Frank (Michael Innocenti), a Jewish factory manager accused of raping and murdering 13-year-old employee Mary Phagan (Cassie Cope). Innocence in all forms dies with this little girl, as rumors spread and tensions are stricken by locals and press alike to turn Leo into an irredeemable other. Christina A. Coakley and Susan Marie Rhea have brought the play to the Keegan Theatre for an entertaining experience filled with ardency from all involved but brought down by an unengaging script, where a preference for style over substance sidelines the poignant thesis of how pride is repurposed into hate.
This production absolutely, indisputably embodies extreme passion.
Stylistically, this play absolutely comes alive as a musical and demonstrates both directors’ prior experience within the genre. The set rarely changes, so it falls to the actors and lighting design to deliver the mood, and in each number, they succeed. The songs are loud, passionate, personal, and enhanced by extreme mood lighting in the background. The actors’ delivery is perfectly suited to each mood – though they can fall off-tempo – and the ensemble is terrifically coordinated; perfect for a play about group mentality.
This production absolutely, indisputably embodies extreme passion. Atlanta’s Confederate character comes alive from the moment a young soldier (Harrison Smith) proclaims his loyalty to his homeland (“The Old Red Hills of Home”) before growing into an old man (Christopher Gillespie) emerging with the town at the play’s beginning, pridefully walking his granddaughter through a Confederate graveyard. His pursuit of perceived righteousness is echoed best when this scene is later inverted, as at Phagan’s funeral (set in the same location), her friend Frankie Epps (Ricky Drummond), enraged, condemns whoever murdered his crush as the stage is bathed in red recalling Hell and the red of the Confederacy (“It Don’t Make Sense”). From this to Leo’s incredible piano-accompanied plea for innocence (“It’s Hard to Speak My Heart”), this play is at its best… in these intense moments. Like one subject to extreme emotion, it’s once everything calms down that the audience begins to raise the question of “Why?”
For the conceit of “Parade” to work, the audience must empathize with both sides of the argument. I’d wager it’d be difficult to find anyone who viewed this play and believed Leo could be guilty. That’s fine. The problem is, for all its character, we never quite grasp at what point the town turns against him. We know he, a college-educated New Yorker, looks down upon his fellow townsfolk, as he expresses during his introduction (“How Can I Call This Home?”). We can only assume that he is likely viewed out of place as well. He acts the same way towards his wife, Lucille (Eleanor Todd), but she remains loyal to him in the second act for reasons I’m never clear on. The two barely even connect with one another, are sometimes staged facing opposite positions during what should be brief minutes of relief for Leo, and rarely share a moment of intimacy. I never believe he truly loves her, but feel more as though they finally connect because he needs someone to count on. The actors are not at fault; writing and staging lead to their chemistry appearing one-sided at best because while the play is high on emotion, it’s light on connection.
Hugh Dorsey, (played charmingly by James Finley), only delivers a quick line as to why he chooses Leo as his only suspect when beginning the case. Act II reveals this can further his career. The town immediately turns against Leo, but we have no established status-quo as to his place within his community. The best response from the community comes at the start of Act II, where the song “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’” presents an argument by the black townsfolk as to why they’d be indifferent to any defense of Leo: if the victim were black, neither the defense nor the prosecution would care nearly so much. The same answer can be applied to a majority of questions one may have in the first act: it’ll be resolved in Act II.
‘Parade’ leaves its audience to wait for grander explanations and denies them active engagement. It provides an unstated understanding that the audience needs to sit back and wait for the plot to clear everything up. This becomes arduous by the point of the trial, where after Dorsey’s opening argument, eight songs follow in a seeming purgatory of barrages of character that we established in scenes prior are exaggerated or false (oddly with no rebuttal from the defense until the end). All of this towards a character whose relations to those testifying we have almost no specific understanding of at this point. With no ambiguity, we are left to wait until everything is explained away, detail by detail, in Act II. Too little, told in too much, an act too late. In the meantime, the accounts become repetitive, because the substance is simply not there.
“Parade” is at times remarkable, in instances tremendous, and brings out the musical talents of its terrific cast, but it never achieves the level of social commentary it aspires to. For all its fury, it never truly explores or comments on how movements rooted in prejudice can be so easily driven in pursuit of another “other.” The songs are terrific on their own, but together, blend and pad the length, largely because of the frustrating plot design. Worth seeing for what’s on display, but what ugliness lurks in this tragic incident’s subtext never quite makes it out into the light.
Running Time: 165 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
“Parade” runs through April 8th at the Keegan Theatre. For more information, click here.