The stage reflects the times, and it’s fascinating to see the 120-seat Keegan Theatre present the Jason Robert Brown-Alfred Uhry musical “Parade” — fleeting on Broadway in 1998-99 and staged here by Ford’s Theatre in 2011 — right in synch with Ford’s lavish “Ragtime.”
Both are big, serious musicals about early-20th-century American racism, with “Parade” based in notorious fact and “Ragtime” adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s vivid 1975 novel. Both hail from the megamusical 1990s, when shows competed to feel like massive events physically or emotionally (or both): The northern-set “Ragtime” opened at the beginning of 1998, and the southern “Parade” debuted at the end.
Yet the heavy thematic lift of “Parade,” about the 1915 anti-Semitic lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia, is less durable than the comparably epic, equally vocally burly “Ragtime” (so many righteous anthems!). The crime is outrageous, but the red-faced mob is brutish and the racist railroading is rote. Not surprisingly, “Parade” has never enjoyed the acclaim of its more suspenseful and nuanced brother-in-arms.
Even so, this original show remains intriguing. It was the brainchild of the great director-producer Harold Prince and features a Tony winning score by Brown, whose subsequent musicals included “The Last Five Years,” “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Honeymoon in Vegas.” It’s the kind of noble project you keep hoping will somehow find the production that makes it work.
It wasn’t quite convincing at Ford’s, and the more intimate confines of Keegan’s stage don’t turn the trick, either. (It’s co-directed by Christina A. Coakley and Susan Marie Rhea.) The songs labor to rouse indignation, but the effort doesn’t pay, and Keegan’s earnest low-budget staging, featuring little more than broad swatches of bland light, lacks style. Sydney Moore’s costumes efficiently summon the period and Matthew Keenan’s set creates a certain scale with wooden balconies on either side of an open stage; in the background looms an abstracted tree.
The show’s real vibrancy lies in the music, often sung at full volume by a cast of 20. It’s nice to hear a nearly 10-piece orchestra playing the robust score, which ranges from marches evoking Georgia’s not-too-distant Confederate past to the sinister, showy “Come Up to My Office,” with young, lying female employees claiming that Frank has sexually abused them in his pencil factory. (Frank was accused of murdering and possibly raping a 13 year old employee, Mary Phagan.) Jake Null’s musicians aren’t unerringly exacting, but the strings and horn and percussion convey the power-pathos cocktail that Brown aimed for. The instruments are also a reminder that a decade ago this might have been attempted with a skeleton crew of synthesizers, a tin-eared approach that thankfully doesn’t seem to pass muster in Washington anymore.
The two leads — Michael Innocenti as a flinty Frank and Eleanor J. Todd as his wife — are plain terrific. The focused, businesslike Innocenti superbly captures the anxious Frank’s outsider spirit from the moment this Brooklyn Jew sings of the Georgians around him: “These people make me tense.” Todd shines, too, as Lucille Frank, bringing passion and vocal control to one of the show’s finest songs, “You Don’t Know This Man.”
The problem with “Parade” is the way true events get flattened by the compressed storytelling. Was the press cynical and corrupt? Probably, but the show’s vile journalist looks like a raw stereotype as he carries all that baggage. The same goes for the menacing officials pressing not for evidence, but for a conviction, and for the savage mob that took the law into its own hands. “Parade” remains as topical as “Ragtime,” and it operates in the same grand, high-minded key. Weirdly, though, its truth doesn’t hold up as well as the other show’s fiction.
Parade, book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Choreography, Rachel Leigh Dolan; lights, Colin Dieck; sound design, Gordon Nimmo-Smith. About 2 1/2 hours. Through April 8 at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. Tickets: $45-$55. Call 202-265-3767 or visit keegantheatre.com.