How could anyone not be appalled by the case of Leo Frank, convicted of murder in 1913 by a court reeking of prejudice and then lynched by a posse of prominent Georgians? The only rational response, of course, is disgust.
And yet, “Parade” — the 1998 Broadway musical exploring the lingering Southern resentment and festering anti-Semitism that gave rise to the atrocity — is only partly satisfying precisely because a sense of moral revulsion is the only strong feeling engendered by this somber and stately show.
In the arm’s-length treatment of the story by composer Jason Robert Brown and more woodenly by the book’s writer, Alfred Uhry, “Parade” never fully absorbs you in any particular aspect of Frank’s ghastly predicament. It adds little of emotional substance to supplement what history books already reveal. (In fact, it avoids some of the more complicated wrinkles.) Most crucially, it fails to create in its central character — sung superbly by an understated Euan Morton— a figure with whom we are allowed to commune. It’s a rather opaque, unmoving portrait of a man enveloped in some of the most horrific circumstances imaginable.
“Parade” had a short Broadway life, courtesy of director Harold Prince and the Lincoln Center Theater, in an incarnation that was notable for its numbing sermonizing. In his well-manicured revival at Ford’s Theatre in a co-production with Theater J, director Stephen Rayne succeeds in toning down the nettlesome finger-wagging. Still, what’s left is a show in which the orchestra evinces more richness of personality than do the characters.
The service this staging provides is to Brown’s score, illuminated in David Budries and Charles Coes’s sound design and Steven Landau’s music direction as a vibrant composition for vocalists, with some sterling solos and choral numbers. For example, “The Old Red Hills of Home,” sung to stirring effect by Matthew John Kacergis and the ensemble, is a grand act of misdirection: It serves as a misleadingly warm framing anthem for the antebellum nostalgia that feeds Georgians’ hatred of Northerners, Jews and blacks. And the frantic patter of the courtroom song “That’s What He Said,”a lively disgorging of untruths delivered with earthy magnetism by the dynamic Kevin McAllister, evokes the mendacious web of hysteria in which Frank was caught.
These songs invigorate what would otherwise be a fairly mournful exercise. You get a taste of the imaginative flair the musical might have displayed only in brief strokes, as in “Come Up to My Office,” an exhilarating fantasy song inspired by the perjured testimony of teenage girls (Bligh Voth, Erin Driscoll and Carolyn Agan) who worked in the Atlanta pencil factory in which the murder occurred. Hips gyrating with a disturbing sensuality, Morton’s Frank joins the girls at center stage for a reenactment of what they describe as Frank’s unwanted attentions. It amounts to the creepy choreography (nicely mapped out by Karma Camp) of a frame-up.
At other times, Brown merely serves the plot mechanics. Frank, a New York Jew married to a wealthy woman from Atlanta’s Jewish community, played by Jenny Fellner, was superintendent of the National Pencil Company and, apparently, one of the last people to see alive 13-year-old employee Mary Phagan (Lauren Williams). The musical, spanning the years 1913, when Phagan’s body was discovered by a night watchman, to 1915, when Frank was kidnapped from a Georgia prison and hanged, exposes the disparate influences that fueled what many came to regard as his railroading.
Though Frank’s death sentence was commuted to life by Georgia’s governor, John Slaton, played by Stephen F. Schmidt, the murder of Phagan in essence has remained unsolved. In 1986, the state of Georgia granted Frank a posthumous pardon, on the grounds that officials “failed to protect Frank or guarantee him an appeal.”
Uhry’s script is an episodic chronicle of the thirst for a useful demon — a local lawman is heard to say hanging another black man “ain’t enough this time” — and of Frank’s own ordeal. On this second count, the musical is underdeveloped; the union of Frank and Fellner’s Lucille comes across as little more than a marriage of melodic convenience. (Lucille, consigned to a second seat in Leo’s life, behind his obsessive devotion to work, is relegated to the rather one-dimensional role of saintly mate.)
Morton, possessed of a vocal instrument so creamy it could be poured in a malt shop, confers an effortless lyricism on Brown’s songs for Frank, even if he can’t crack the character’s mysterious reserve. The intention seems to be to portray him as the stoic eye of a senseless storm; his first act finale is titled, “It’s Hard to Speak My Heart.” But Frank’s reticence becomes a problem, especially as we seek to understand what the suffering at the core of “Parade” does to him.
The show not only sounds good, it looks good, too, as a result of set designer Tony Cisek’s evocations of industrial archways and institutional pillars, and costume designer Wade Laboissonniere’s period costumes, all expertly lighted by Pat Collins. Even so, “Parade” feels like a rather passionless look at passions inflamed to barbaric degrees.
Music and lyrics, Jason Robert Brown, book by Alfred Uhry. Directed by Stephen Rayne. Choreography, Karma Camp; music direction, Steven Landau; set, Tony Cisek; costumes, Wade Laboissonniere; lighting, Pat Collins, sound, David Budries and Charles Coes; wigs and makeup, Anne Nesmith; fight direction, Brad Waller; dialects, Lynn Watson. With Chris Sizemore, Sandy Bainum, Will Gartshore, Christopher Bloch, Kellee Knighten Hough, Michael Bunce. About 2½ hours. Through Oct. 30 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Visit www.fords.org or call 800-982-2787.