Theatre Review by Wendy Guida
"What’s next?’ wonders my friend Barbara, ‘Warsaw Ghetto: The Musical?" She is troubled by the subject matter of many recent musicals and worries, I think, that we have crossed some line of taste or propriety. And it is difficult to imagine musical theatre based on the life of Leo Frank because when we think of musicals we so easily picture someone belting out "There's No Business Like Show Business." Imagining Leo Frank saying, "Wait, I feel a song coming on" and then singing a few tunes and joining a kick-line is pretty appalling. Hey, I was skeptical when they said they were making a musical of a book I loved called Ragtime. But Barbara need not have worried. Parade respectfully honors the memory of those involved, and elevates their sacrifice into something finer. Holy, even.
Parade weaves together a number of stories. It is the story of Mary Phagan, a young teen who is found murdered in the basement of the factory in which she works. It is the story of Leo Frank, the manager of that factory who is tried for her murder. It is also the story of the Frank marriage which is transformed by the events of the trial and its aftermath. Interwoven are the lives of others affected by the case: the newspaper reporter covering it, the black workers in Atlanta, the mourning Phagan family.
Leo Frank is an unlikely hero. He is a slight man, one who has been making his small way in life before Mary Phagan's murder sends him careening off course. He has married a respectable southern woman and manages a pencil factory. Yet, when Frank, a Jew from Brooklyn, sings of Atlanta "How Can I Call This Home?" we find him endearing and funny. He does not fit in, and this is something that most people have experienced at some point in life. What make things harder still is that he also doesn’t fit in with the woman he has married. When I saw excerpts from Parade at a preview, I was struck by how un-Jewish Carolee Carmello’s Lucille Frank seemed, but the reason for this became clear as I watched the show. Lucille Frank was a thoroughly assimilated Jewish woman. She was more Southern Belle than Hadassah Maven. In one funny lyric of "How Can I Call This Home?" Frank laments the fact that Lucille would prefer that he say "howdy," and not "shalom." In Brooklyn, Frank’s Jewishness was unexceptional, but in Atlanta, it is something distasteful to be concealed. The conflict this creates in the Frank marriage contributes to the rather chilly relationship of husband and wife.
As Leo Frank, Brent Carver is exceptional. He fully inhabits his character, expressing such emotion in his stance, his every gesture, and his voice. In a truly brilliant bit of music and staging, Frank’s innocence is proven to the audience. Frank is meek and frail-looking throughout most of the show, but during the trial, as testimony is given against him, he gets up to sing and dance to "Come Up to My Office," a catchy, charismatic, sexy number that the Frank we know could never have done. It is as if Frank is suddenly channeling a toe-tapping lothario who lures girls up to his office to seduce them. The testimony might have been convincing to the audience if we had only heard it, but actually seeing the Frank we have come to know, doing what the witness says he did, makes it clear that he is innocent. The scene is painfully funny, as many moments in this very dark tale are. I’d been led to believe the show was unrelentingly bleak, but nothing could be further from the truth. In the book, Alfred Uhry is able to find the humor in situations that would otherwise be unbearable and this serves, paradoxically, to intensify the sadness. Our laughter reminds us of how terrible the situation is, how unjust, and we are that much more engaged by Frank when he makes his final statement in "It’s Hard to Speak My Heart."
Leo Frank was an outsider in an Atlanta which was quickly changing from agrarian to industrial. Parents struggling to make ends meet often sent their children to work in factories in this time before child labor laws. Mary Phagan was a girl barely into her teens when she went to work in the pencil factory Frank managed. A society that was sacrificing its children needed a way to assuage its guilt, and who better to target than Frank, a factory manager, a Yankee and Jew. They couldn’t have conceived it better if they had tried. The desperation of the people in power to find a scapegoat is made all the more apparent when, in this racist American South, without real evidence, they convicted Frank on the oft-changing testimony of a black man, Jim Conley.
Jim Conley is portrayed by the extraordinarily talented Rufus Bonds, Jr.. His is a powerful voice which is used to its best advantage in "Feel the Rain Fall," a blues song he sings when he is questioned on a chain gang. The role he plays is a thankless one, as it is apparent that he incriminates Frank to divert attention from his own part in the crime, but he sure gets to belt out a few great numbers.
An easy way to bolster support for Frank would have been to allow the audience to forget about Mary Phagan, or better yet, not to have seen her at all. The creators of Parade are braver than that, though, and allow us to know Mary and to mourn with her family. Her story is not forgotten. We meet her first in an adorable song, "The Picture Show," in which we see her spunk and strength and zest for life. Later we are moved deeply by one of Mary's potential suitors in "It Don’t Make Sense" and her mother in "My Child Will Forgive Me." Both songs brought tears to my eyes and then chilled me as the characters alchemized their love for Mary into murderous hatred for the man they believe to be her killer. The subtle complexity of Parade is what is so extraordinary. We are given layer after layer, as the show builds to its climax, but the story never slips into easy sentimentality or moralizing.
Lucille Frank’s journey is a moving one. Like Ragtime’s Mother, she is compelled to break the constraints of ladylike gentility to fight for something she believes in. In her first scene we watch her fix her hair; she seems superficial and complacent. As the show progresses, we watch her lack and then gain faith in her husband, and eventually fight for his release. In the end, her status as a lady works in her favor, as it gives her entree into the circles of power. Carolee Carmello’s voice is perfect for this role. She conveys emotion without losing the exquisite richness of her voice. I was familiar with "You Don’t Know This Man" from Audra McDonald’s solo CD and liked it very much, but within the context of the play, the song is incredibly powerful. It is the first time we see Lucille rise to her husband’s defense and it is more than welcome. By the time I heard Leo and Lucille’s final love song, "All the Wasted Time," I was fully convinced of their commitment and newly-kindled passion. It was a moment the show had more than earned and was firmly out of the realm of the maudlin.
I cannot emphasize enough the talent of the entire cast. There was not a single weak link. The voices were not only strong, they had exceptional beauty. Evan Pappas as the reporter covering the case has a witty, show-stopping number called "Big News" in which he bemoans the dearth of exciting news stories before the Frank case breaks. Pappas has a terrific voice and a dynamic stage presence. Exceptional as well are the girls who work in the factory, played by Brooke Sunny Moriber, Abbi Hutcherson and Emily Klein. They sing "The Factory Girls," a song which is reminiscent of the girls in The Crucible who incriminate John Proctor. I was reminded, too, of something Sondheim said of writing Sweeney Todd. To paraphrase, he said that the more horrible the act on stage, the more beautiful he made the music. The song the three girls sing as they give false testimony is hauntingly beautiful. Their clear, lovely voices are mesmerizing and capture perfectly the seductiveness of a well-told lie.
The sets were unremarkable, though I liked very much the tree that loomed in the background symbolically throughout the show. Certainly nothing was glaringly absent, and this was not meant to be a show about fancy sets. I always wonder about how to assign credit to actors and directors, not always being sure who is responsible for what, but Hal Prince’s direction is clean and well-paced. The trial is staged in a way that is innovative and doesn’t get bogged down in details. Scenes are never milked for emotion, but rather unselfconsciously get to the heart of what is honest and human in every situation.
The outcome of the plot was not unknown to me. I had done research into Leo Frank’s case and actually feared watching the end of the show. I did not know if I could bear what I knew had to happen. Subtlety is not always easy to find in the American musical. Cleverness, yes. Beauty, certainly. But a gentle touch in a story of such inherent drama and high emotion is the mark of a sure hand. The creators of Parade trusted their material and their cast enough not to over-do; instead they took their time to let the true story of Leo Frank unfold and speak for itself.
Parade is scheduled to run until February 28, 1999 at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre. Performances are Tues-Sat at 8pm, Wed & Sat at 2pm, and Sun at 3pm. Tickets are $50-75. There are no rush tickets available.