‘Parade’ Review: The Trial and Tragedy of Leo Frank

'Parade' Review: The Trial and Tragedy of Leo Frank

Just six months after its universally beloved Encores! revival of “Into the Woods,” New York City Center returns with another timely, excellent production about collective responsibility and loss. Smartly directed by Michael Arden, City Center’s gala presentation of “Parade,” which opened on Tuesday night and runs through Sunday, delves further into America’s history of violence and delivers the best-sung musical in many a New York season.

The book writer Alfred Uhry’s dramatization of the 1913 trial of Leo Frank, and his subsequent imprisonment and 1915 lynching, gave the composer Jason Robert Brown a canvas to paint a complex, nourishing score that captures the entire weight of that fraught history. (Both men won Tonys for their work on the show, which premiered on Broadway in 1998.) Here, a first-rate orchestra, conducted by Brown, and under the music direction of Tom Murray, brings its pomp and pageantry to terrifying life.

At the heart of the show is the rich-voiced Ben Platt, successfully transferring his lauded anxious energy from “Dear Evan Hansen” to the role of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn-born Jewish pencil factory manager uneasy in his Atlanta surroundings. His sense of regional superiority is matched by the naïve comfort of his wife, Lucille (a luminous Micaela Diamond), as she plans for a picnic on the day of the town’s annual Confederate Memorial Day parade. Diamond’s expressive face, with large eyes as expressive as those of a silent screen siren, carries the burden of resilience as Leo is wrongly jailed for the murder of a 13-year-old girl who worked at the factory.

In an antisemitic kangaroo court under Judge Roan’s (John Dossett) uncaring eye, the prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (a remarkable Paul Alexander Nolan) presents a flimsy case. Adding fuel to the flames are a fundamentalist newspaper publisher (Manoel Felciano) and a sensationalist reporter (the superb Jay Armstrong Johnson, shining as he sings the score’s most fast-paced number, “Real Big News,” made doubly hectic by Cree Grant’s spin -heavy choreography here, which is otherwise lovely).

Despite Governor Slaton’s (Sean Allan Krill) belated efforts, Leo’s fate is sealed by false testimonies coaxed out of the murdered girl’s co-workers (Ashlyn Maddox, Sophia Manicone, Sofie Poliakoff) and the factory’s janitor Jim Conley (a phenomenally voiced Alex Joseph Grayson ). The cast, which also includes Gaten Matarazzo as a teenager out for revenge, is uniformly splendid — as adept in the work’s solo outings as in the electric group numbers.

But the problems with the book, which lacks some dramatic immediacy, remain. Ben Brantley mentioned the “overriding feeling of disdain, a chilly indignation” in his original review; and, as Vincent Canby wrote shortly afterward, the musical “plays as if it were still a collection of notes.” There is no confusing good and evil here; never any question as to what anyone is thinking or about to do, their personalities and fates as predetermined as those of characters in a children’s Bible. The show, in that respect, is aptly titled.

Arden wisely counteracts this by filling the production with deft flourishes that compound American hatred across centuries: A salute by Confederate soldiers’ is slowed down so that their outstretched arms resemble a Sieg Heil salute; Roan and Dorsey’s fishing rods in one scene whip down like switches; revelers crack open Bud Lights in their final celebration.

Dane Laffrey’s resourceful set — a raised wooden platform flanked, courtroom-style, by simple chairs — effectively evokes a minstrel stage, soapbox and gallows at once. And the stage under the platform is adorned with stars-and-stripes buntings that hang over mounds of crimson earth — as much the hallowed “old red hills” of Georgia as bloodstained dirt thrown onto a coffin — and a small screen emphasizing the show’s procedural nature by displaying each scene’s time, date, and location, which matches historical photographs projected onto the back wall.

Then again, considering Uhry and Brown’s text and lyrics, subtlety need not be the name of the game these days. This country’s ongoing procession of racism, anti-Semitism and “law-and-order”-screeching politicians comes awfully close to the hate-filled climate of the work’s setting, shedding any pretense of respectability. Arden here fights fire with fire, and his direction is sincere and unambiguous. But no one is let off the hook. I imagine the audience members laughing at the condescending jokes about Southern idiocy in the first act had to at least sit with the second act’s taunting of selective liberal compassion, sung with liveliness by Courtnee Carter and Douglas Lyons.

A fully staged “Parade” hasn’t been seen in New York in nearly 25 years, and this revival recalls an era of big casts, big stories and big talent — a time when musicals actually felt like events. Platt and Diamond are fearless performers, and their duet “This Is Not Over Yet” is a powerhouse for the ages. Their commanding vocals are matched by a confident production that revives the best of the original while pointing at the possibility of growth, and hope.

Through Nov. 6 at New York City Center, Manhattan; nycitycenter.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

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