Regional Reviews: Boston
Under the soaring Jason Robert Brown melody, we can hear an uneasy dissonancea healthy skepticism of the anthems and tributes paid to a South that lost the war. The duality of this opening song (beautifully sung by Gable Kinsman) sets the tone for Parade, a potent musical retelling of the grave injustice of the 1913 trial of Leo Frank for a young girl's murder. Though this musical opened on Broadway in 1998 under Harold Prince's direction, winning Tony Awards for Brown's score and Alfred Uhry's book, it has remained somewhat under the radar. Thankfully, the current Moonbox production is musically and emotionally resonanta Parade worthy of rediscovery.
Brown and Uhry's musical follows Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager in Atlanta who is accused of and tried for the rape and murder of 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan. It hews closely to the facts of the sensationalized case, presumes Leo's innocence as he attempts to defend himself against a mounting wave of doctored evidence and false testimonies. The striking set by Lindsay Genevieve Fuori centers around a large oak tree with a hanging swingan eerie reminder of Leo's ultimate fate at the hands of a lynch mob. Historians feel that Leo Frank was wrongly convicted, and the state of Georgia officially pardoned him in 1986.
Even before the murder, Leo Frank doesn't fit in. He's like Ebenezer Scrooge to his fellow Atlantans, a cold-hearted Yankee from Brooklyn who hasn't accustomed himself to the gentility of Southern living. He's unmistakably Jewish, while his goodhearted wife Lucille downplays her own Jewish heritage. She's uncomfortable when he says things like "Don't be such a meshuggeneh!" The costumes by Chelsea Kerl reinforce Leo's outsider status, with everyone clad in shades of Confederate red while Leo defiantly wears blues. Phil Tayler is a compelling Leo Frank, a nebbish who's perpetually uncomfortable in his own skin. He plays up Leo's colder side at first, peevish to Lucille and impersonal to his workers, so that we see him grow to stand up for himself over the course of the show.
While Leo's two years in prison pass by, a parallel story emerges: Lucille's fight for her husband's freedom. As Lucille realizes her own power in speaking up, using her Southern charm to enter spaces dominated by powerful men, she and Leo begin to thaw the icy divide in their marriage and learn to trust each other. Their duets are the heart of Parade, first the stirring "This Is Not Over Yet" as his fight is renewed, and later the poignant "All the Wasted Time" as they share one last meal together on the prison cell floor. Haley K. Clay's Lucille, singing in a clear, resilient belt, is an effective foil for Tayler's slowly warming Leo Frank.
Jason Robert Brown has written several affecting scores (The Last Five Years, The Bridges of Madison County), but for me, Parade stands as his most dramatically satisfying work to date. His score is a patchwork quilt of porch-swing Americana, post-Sondheim complexity, and contemporary pop sensibility. His use of period pastiche numbers keeps things lively, though they are also designed to unsettle, like the melancholy blues of the chain gang juxtaposed with the upper crust gaily dancing to ragtime. The apex of Brown's craft is Leo Frank's trial, a masterfully constructed twenty-minute musical drama. No sooner are we reeling from Mrs. Phagan mourning her daughter on the witness stand (beautifully conveyed by Anne Sablich) than we're thrown into a false cakewalk fantasy of Leo seducing the factory girls ("Come Up to My Office"). Aaron Patterson is a standout in Jim Conley's devil-may-care testimony "That's What He Said," a rousing gospel tune that gives animated life to an inherently grim series of accusations.
If there's a downside to Brown and Uhry's ambitious work, Parade can feel overstuffed. There are a few too many characters to musicalize, including an often inebriated reporter who is an attempt to provide comic relief. We also endure several unnecessary scenes of corrupt white men with syrupy Southern accents who plot villainously behind closed doors. These overwritten moments don't add much that we don't already suspect. The show is more interesting when it focuses on a community ravaged by grief, falling back on its inherent prejudices and succumbing to mob mentality. As the opening song proclaims, this is an Atlanta holding to a way of life that's pure.
To balance the show's grand scale, Moonbox's production, directed by Jason Modica, takes an intimate approach that pays off well. With a pared-down cast and a nine-piece orchestra, the company is musically exceptional, delivering the sweeping ballads and period songs with gusto and sensitivity. There are a few directorial missteps: many scenes are staged too close to the audience, making sightlines difficult and choreography cramped. Modica also makes the distracting choice to have the ghost of Mary Phagan wander the stage all night and react to everything that's happening. But the excellent voices of the cast ensure the anthems are rousing and clear, and the production has a propulsive energy that moves swiftly toward its inescapable conclusion.
More than a century later, the injustice of the murder and the trial continues to haunt us. News from the South is still dominated by a time long lost: monuments to the old Confederacy; voter suppression at the polls; the resurgence of dangerous hate groups. Parade is an often electrifying attempt to wrestle with the ongoing relevance of Leo Frank's story. It's well worth seeing at Moonbox.
Moonbox Productions' Parade runs through December 28, 2019, at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston MA. For tickets and information, visit www.moonboxproductions.org or visit the Boston Center for the Arts box office.
Cast: Phil Tayler (Leo Frank), Haley K. Clay (Lucille Frank), Jerry Bisantz (Hugh Dorsey), Aaron Patterson (Jim Conley), Anna Bortnick (Mary Phagan), Gable Kinsman (Frankie Epps/Young Soldier), Dan Prior (Britt Craig/Gov. Slaton), Elbert Joseph (Newt Lee), Anne Sablich (Mrs. Phagan/Sally Staton), Todd Yard (Tom Watson/Officer Starnes), Brad Peloquin (Judge Roan/Old Soldier), Yewande Odetoyinbo (Minnie McKnight), Andrew Child (Luther Rosser/Officer Ivey), Lilli Jacobs (Monteen), Angela Syrett (Iola Stover), and Katie Elinoff (Essie).
Creative Team: Sharman Altshuler (Producer), Jason Modica (Director), Kira Troilo (Choreographer), Catherine Stornetta (Music Director), Phil Tayler (Co-Producer), Lindsay Fuori (Set Design), Steve Shack (Lighting Design), Elizabeth Cahill (Sound Design), Chelsea Kerl (Costume Design), Cesara Walters (Production Stage Manager), Sam O'Brien (Assistant Stage Manager), Rose Mancuso (Assistant Stage Manager), Allison Olivia Choat (Associate Director/Dramaturge), Peter Mill (Wigs), Jesse McKenzie (Sound Engineer), Kara Kelly-Martin (Director of Community and Accessibility Initiatives), Kristin Johnson (Director of Artistic Sign Language).