World events have inadvertently raised the significance of the New York City Center’s Annual Gala presentation of the brilliant new staging of the Jason Robert Brown/Alfred Uhry musical Parade which debuted over two decades ago. Anti-Semitism and xenophobia have risen to epidemic levels. This moving dramatization of actual events drives home the inevitable results of such unreasonable hatred.
Parade is the gripping story of Leo Frank (Ben Platt), a Brooklyn Jew, who moved to Atlanta, Georgia for a better job. He married a Southern Jew, Lucille (Micaela Diamond), whose southern version of Judaism confuses him.
Frank was the manager of a pencil factory and was accused of raping and murdering a 14-year-old white employee, Mary Phegan (Erin Rose Doyle), on Confederate Day, 1915. This almost operatic musical drama impeccably depicts how Phegan’s death led to a flowering of the anti-Semitism (twisted to the prosecution’s benefit, horribly during Frank’s trial) and the KKK.
Director Michael Arden has taken a complex story and made it flow and build, helped by the brilliant, well-integrated choreography of Cree Grant whose cakewalking choruses and snake-hip movements were seemed fresh even as they defined the period.
The set by Dane Laffrey, divided into several playing areas, and costumes by Susan Hilferty were quite extravagant, more so than most other New York City Center musical revivals and are evocative of the period, as were the wigs and hair by Tom Watson. Period photos of the actual people were projected onto the set and rear cyclorama. These photos were heartbreaking as they made the story all the more real.
The characters included despotic public officials—Judge Roan (a very good John Dossett), a district attorney, Hugh Dorsey (a powerful, shady Paul Alexander Nolan) and others who either willingly lied or are blackmailed into lying to strengthen the anti-Semitic agenda and convict Frank.
Gaten Matarazzo as Mary’s boyfriend Eddie was youthful appealing singing “The Picture Show” with Mary just before the horrible incident happens. Later Eddie, like everyone else, spouts lies to convict “the Jew.” As Mrs. Phagan, Erin Mackey sings “My Child Will Forgive Me,” tensely revealing her prevarication over Frank’s trial and conviction.
A mature Jay Armstrong Johnson as reporter Britt Craig, no longer the fresh-faced juvenile, sleazed his way through his song “Real Big News,” turning his good fortune of telling the Frank story into almost sexually ecstatic dance.
The emotional climax of Parade is the bittersweet “All the Wasted Time” sung by Frank and Lucille just as his death sentence is commuted. The moving duet was all the more heartbreaking as it is immediately followed by his lynching. The two actors fill the theater with emotion. Platt, far from his Evan Hansen days, is a particular revelation, with Diamond displaying equal force here and throughout the show.
Brown’s songs, each a gem, are integrated into Uhry’s detailed scenario. He uses period dances and pastiche along with contemporary musical theater forms to tell the stories. When the governor (a strong Sean Allan Krill) sings the innocent sounding “Pretty Music,” he was masking the turmoil he feels inside. “The Glory” was an anthem meant to raise the anti-Frank passions of the people and court.
Composer-lyricist Brown conducted the large orchestra and received a special ovation for his sensitive reading of his own score.
The emotional impact of Parade makes the—distant?—possibility of a transfer to Broadway a fond thought.
Parade (November 2 – 6, 2022)
New York City Center Annual Gala Presentation
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.NYCityCenter.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission