The musical Parade was greatly admired by many during its Broadway premiere in 1998, so it's no surprise that this serious and challenging piece now regularly receives regional and collegiate mountings. The latest, a co-production between the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) and the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center in Covington, Kentucky, boasts an extremely talented cast of CCM students and first rate direction.
Parade is based on the true story of Leo Frank, a northern Jew living in Atlanta in 1913, who is falsely accused of the murder of a young girl who worked at the pencil factory he managed. The show focuses partly on Frank's trial, his wife's diligent efforts to free him, and their search for justice despite bigotry, cultural differences, religious intolerance, and political motivations. However, of equal importance is the relationship between Leo and his wife Lucille, which only begins to blossom once he is imprisoned.
The score is by Jason Robert Brown, and it earned him a Tony Award. The songs are intelligent and poignant in both words and music, while also being extremely tuneful and memorable. Brown incorporates many styles in the score including southern anthems, marches, African-American spirituals, Dixieland, waltzes, blues, and ballads. Highlights are the opening "The Old Red Hills of Home," "Come Up to My Office," the impassioned "This Is Not Over Yet" (where Leo finds renewed hope for gaining his freedom) and the beautiful eleven-o'clock duet "All The Wasted Time."
Alfred Uhry, known better for writing plays such as Driving Miss Daisy, provides an insightful and gripping book which likewise won him a Tony Award. A southerner himself, Mr. Uhry is able to realistically capture the true essence of the South. He tells a compelling story and uses several effective devices, including a few fantasy scenes, to play out the false accusations made against Leo Frank. Uhry also wisely emphasizes the human tragedy within the plot, making it both a historical recreation and a love story. The lead characters change and grow during the course of the musical and are written with enough depth to allow the audience to care and invest in the outcome of their struggle.
Parade was revised a few years ago for a production in the United Kingdom, with some songs dropped and others added. The current production appears to be a combination of them both, with one of the cut songs restored, and all of the new tunes and plot tweaks in place. Some changes help with the flow of the piece, but others, such as a vague introduction of Tom Watson and a new, not-as-good song for the Judge, aren't for the better.
For this CCM/Carnegie co-production, Dee Anne Bryll and Ed Cohen serve as directors. Their blocking on the somewhat cramped stage at Carnegie is admirable, and the tone and pace of the piece are appropriate. The pair also provides some moments of theatrical brilliance, including their staging of "That's What He Said." The harshness of so many moments within the show is astutely contrasted to the delicate manner in which the relationship between Leo and Lucille is presented. The limited choreography is apt and especially engaging in "The Picture Show." Musical Director Steve Goers leads a skilled six piece orchestra.
While the CCM cast is young (no seniors), the twenty-two students aptly portray the wide age range of characters and are anchored by some very talented performers in leading roles. Collin Kessler sings splendidly throughout, and presents Leo more as formal and remote rather than nervous. His portrayal of Leo during the fantasy songs is especially skilled. As Lucille, Jenny Hickman provides a strong emotional arc, is a powerful vocalist, and conveys the impassioned frustration of the role well.
Outside of Leo and Lucille, the show provides many other large supporting roles and moments to shine. While a few of the supporting performances are less than perfect, many others are very good, including those by Noah Ricketts (Jim Conley), Eric Geil (Frankie Epps), Matt Hill (Hugh Dorsey), Nathaniel Irvin (Tom Watson) and Sarah Bishop (Mrs. Phagan).
The simple set design by Dana Hall includes many steps to provide multiple levels, and several large windows, which surprisingly serve as effective representations of the jail, factory, Governor's mansion, and other locales. The lighting by Alan Hanson and Wes Richter is professionally rendered and effects on the windows help to further clarify setting, including presentation of the tree that is so often referenced in the lyrics and dialogue of the show. The costumes by Janet Powell are period appropriate and attractive.
Parade is a well-written and solemn examination of one of the darker periods and settings in American history. The CCM and Carnegie production highlights the musical's many positives, and the young, talented cast and well-suited direction make this a highlight of the Spring theater season locally. The show continues through April 21, 2013 at The Carnegie, 1028 Scott Blvd., Covington, Kentucky. Visit www.thecarnegie.com or call (859) 957-1940 for tickets or more information.