Book by Alfred Uhry
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Co-conceived by Harold Prince
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen
Production conceived by Jorge Cousineau and Terrence J. Nolen
Arden Theatre Company, Philadelphia
Sept. 26 – Nov. 3, 2013
Arden Theatre Company director Terry Nolen is an expert at smoothing out the thorniest musicals, but even he can only streamline so much in the1998 Harold Prince docu-musical “Parade.” It dramatizes the infamous trial in 1913 Atlanta of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman, accused of killing a 13-year-old girl factory worker. Murder, sedition, anti-Semitism, rape, racism, pedophilia, and lynch mobs are just some of its weighty themes.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry’s script juggles two dozen characters, ambitiously, to show the story more than tell, and equally impressive is Jason Robert Brown’s score, with non-showy styles of styles in of ragtime, blues, country and traditional Americana. But the book-music dynamic is very heavy going in several of the scenes, and the pacing is jarring. Adding to the freight, this being a true crime murder mystery, the work begs for a certain rhythm that isn‘t there. Nolen and video designer Jorge Cousineau devise a visual framework of period film projections midstage that distracts from the gluey structure.
Brown’s expositional lyric writing reaches great heights right out of the gate with the opening number, a bittersweet Civil War-time ballad to “The Old Red Hills of Home,” with the powerful voice of Michael Phillip O’Brien singing about his lost love at home.
Fast forward 50 years with Atlanta getting ready for the Civil War Memorial Day Parade to celebrate. Leo Frank, a pencil factory supervisor, grouses to his wife, Lucille, about southern customs and why anyone would want to commemorate losing a war. Frank is an unpopular figure around town; for starters he’s a Yankee and he pays 10 cents an hour for child labor.
Meanwhile, before the parade, teen lothario Frankie Epps is trying to get 13-year-old Mary to go to the movies with him that night, but Mary puts off his advances and says she has to go to the factory, which Frank runs, to pick up her pay first. She never returns. The next day when her dead body is discovered in the factory, Frank is accused of the crime and thrown in jail, put before a court and, with little defense, summarily convicted on circumstantial evidence and a string of paid witnesses who lied about his actions on the day of the murder.
Frank languishes in jail condemned to die. But the already rocky marriage between Leo and Lucille, is strengthened through adversity. Jennie Eisenhower and Ben Dibble believably portray their complex relationship mostly through two exceptional duets, “This Isn’t Over Yet” as Lucille puts things in motion to give Frank hope that he will be exonerated. Later, when Lucille has a conjugal visit, they sing “All That Time Wasting“ with its soaring pathos.
Not all of the numbers are as successful. The first act finale is a sweaty courtroom scene with everyone’s testimony in songs that gets very clammy. Even Dibble couldn’t rescue “Come up to My Office“ a fantasy sequence out of nowhere, in which he plays himself as if he were the man the prosecution is painting him out to be. There are several suspects and even though Frank is being railroaded, he was the last known person to have seen Mary alive.
Uhry makes several characters look suspicious: Derrick Cobey, as the black cleaning supervisor Jim Conley, certainly plays the role as a deceptive villain. He sings the torturous, heavy-handed number “Blues: Feel the Rain Fail,” one of the weakest numbers at an otherwise climatic point in the story. Cobey’s valiant performance rescues it from coming off as a parody of a chain-gang song.
Among the other standouts in this large cast with a number of the actors playing multiple roles are many Arden favorites. O’Brien sang three roles with distinction. Tony Lawton played the gentlemanly but slimy DA Hugh Dorsey. Lawton was in great voice in “The Glory,” a duet with Dennis Holland, who plays the even skeevier Judge Roan.
Sarah Gliko gives a subtle and witty performance as the nobody’s-fool wife of Georgia Governor John Slaton, played by Scott Greer. Greer charms in the party scene dancing the fox-trot in the Sondheim-esque number “Pretty Music.” Jeffrey Coon is the pumped-up, self-parodying yellow journalist selling it to the back row in a razzy show number called “Real Big News.” Robert Hager gives a haunting vocal performance as Mary’s enraged boyfriend, Epps, who vows revenge against Frank.
“Parade” could easily loose 30 minutes, but Nolen’s strong directorial and great singing by the whole cast makes it worth those run-on scenes. Credit the solid accompaniment by music director Ryan Touheyn and the musicians backstage.