The best asset of the Broadway revival of “Parade,” Jason Robert Brown’s sorrowful if flawed musical concerning the 1915 anti-Semitic lynching of Leo Frank, is youth.
Playing husband and wife Leo and Lucille Frank, Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond come across strikingly young (and at 23 years old, Diamond really is), like a faded photo of your great-grandparents that you just discover in a drawer. The themes neither smile nor frown, but behind their neutral stares is a lot promise and fear.
2 hours, half-hour, with one intermission. Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. forty fifth St.
Those clashing forces are what drive this revival, which opened Thursday night on the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, and make the audience robotically want what’s best for Lucille and Leo — though we all know that a peaceful life is tragically out of reach for them.
That we care about their future is an important layer for an often cool-to-the-touch show that has at all times been more concerned with the problems it confronts moderately than the people it’s about.
Truth be told, “Parade” is a musical that can endlessly be good moderately than great — hampered by author Alfred Uhry’s book of stereotypical Southern cartoons, who’re made less menacing and real due to their flatness, and a rating by Brown that features each his best songs and his most forgettable.
But director Michael Arden’s small-scale staging, which began as a City Center concert, has heart when it focuses squarely on the Franks’ relationship growing while their hardship intensifies.
The show starts and ends with a lush and loud number called “The Old Red Hills of Home,” partly set through the Civil War and partly in 1915, suggesting that stubborn Southern pride — undeserved, on this show’s estimation — is ongoing and unchanged.
Leo has just moved from Brooklyn to live with Lucille in Marietta, Georgia, where she’s from, and he feels misplaced as a Jewish man — even amongst Southern Jews. “I believed that Jews were Jews, but I used to be unsuitable!” he sings.
And he’s right to feel targeted. While working as a manager on the National Pencil Co., he’s arrested on suspicion of killing a teenage worker named Mary Phagan (Erin Rose Doyle), whose body is present in the constructing. There are other suspects, however the authorities willfully ignore them and go after Leo.
It’s those authorities — as written, and resultingly performed — who drag “Parade” down with hackneyed, barked dialogue. The racism-spewing lawyer Hugh Dorsey (Paul Alexander Nolan) and newspaper reporter Britt Craig (Jay Armstrong Johnson) are particularly one-note on paper.
They appear fake, but pictures of the true historical figures are projected throughout the production onto the back wall and sometimes in the course of a song, which is an unnecessary distraction.
Brown’s finest music, and Platt’s most heart-wrenching work, come during his trial, as three factory girls (who’ve been coached to lie) hauntingly harmonize their testimony like Abigail from “The Crucible.” Brown has yet to top it in any show.
When Leo gives his statement, and Platt sings that his character is unemotional and awkward but innocent, it’s the tears-free opposite of when he sobbed at the top of “Dear Evan Hansen,” however the gut-punch is similar.
The second act has more built-in structural issues, as Lucille works tirelessly to appeal her husband’s verdict and enlists the assistance of Governor Slaton (Sean Allan Krill) to get Leo home. A galvanizing number is followed by minutes of aimless procedural wading. But there are few sublime moments.
As one other factory employee, and suspect, Jim Conley, Alex Joseph Grayson wails the song “Feel the Rain Fall,” which is gorgeous but pops up out of nowhere.
And Diamond, whose combination of fragility and power is thrilling for an actress so young, brings an electricity to her duets with Platt: “This Is Not Over Yet” and the romantic “All of the Wasted Time,” which fades into the musical’s devastating conclusion.
While Arden’s production is admirably (and predictably) intimate, the centerpiece of Dane Laffrey’s set — a raised picket platform that appears like something you would possibly find on a parade route, or at an execution — is a roadblock.
Audience members within the front orchestra should crane their necks to observe lots of the scenes atop the monolith, and actors are forced to go up some stairs to inhabit the strongest points on the stage. That the entire solid sits onstage observing the fate of Leo was a tad too obvious and spatially limiting. For me, the structure only takes away — it never contributes anything.
Still, Arden has directed a young production of a musical that may often play like a sledgehammer, and has an anti-hate message that’s distressingly relevant.
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