Parade Review. Ben Platt as Jewish Martyr in Unsettling Revival

Two years after a jury convicted Leo Frank of murdering a 13-year-old girl and condemned him to death, a prison guard enters his jail cell with a message from his wife Lucille:  Georgia Governor John M. Slaton has agreed to reexamine his case.

It’s a pivotal moment in several ways in the Broadway revival of “Parade,” which is itself a reexamination of the 1998 Broadway musical inspired by the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish manager of a pencil factory in Atlanta, Georgia who was lynched in 1915.  

Twenty-five years ago,  the musical, which was directed and co-conceived by the legendary Harold Prince, won Tony Awards for both its composer Jason Robert Brown and its librettist Alfred Uhry, but was critically dismissed as “more podium-thumping screed than compelling story,” and ran for just 85 regular performances. Now starring Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond, the revival, which is slated for a limited run through August at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, has been widely heralded as riveting and rapturous. 

Why the change in reaction? According to the program, “the book and score have undergone numerous revisions,” among them “considerable restructuring and rewriting” by director Rob Ashford in a 2007 production at the Donmar Warehouse in London, with further revisions late last year by director Michael Arden for an Encores! concert version at New York City Center. It’s that version that has transferred to Broadway, reportedly after even more tweaks.

The show I saw this week struck me as sophisticated musically, intensely acted and gorgeously sung, with a grand 17-piece orchestra and a large splendid cast. (Hear the new Broadway cast album below.)   Certainly, a story involving antisemitism is timely. But “Parade,” despite the revisions, also feels undermined by some of the same problems identified in the initial production. Didactic, obvious and overly clever, it’s disturbing in ways it doesn’t intend.

My mixed – whiplashed! – reaction was crystallized after Leo learns his case is in effect reopened. It leads to a musical number “This Is Not Over Yet”  that’s so lushly sung, first by Ben Platt and then in a duet with Micaela Diamond, and so thrillingly orchestrated, that to call it a showstopper almost devalues it. Platt, returning to Broadway after his star-making role as the nerdy, socially awkward title character in “Dear Evan Hansen,” feels ideally cast as the nerdy, emotionally remote Leo Frank. Platt has a remarkable ability to use his singing to reveal the inner emotions that his character has trouble communicating to other people, even his wife. Micaela Diamond, who made her Broadway debut as the youngest of the three Chers in “The Cher Show” but grew up singing in her local synagogue,  portrays a Southern Jew who, like other Southerners, at first doesn’t know quite what to make of her Brooklyn-raised husband.  (In an earlier song, How Can I Call This Home, Leo sings: “I’m trapped inside this life/And trapped  beside a wife/Who would prefer that I say/ ‘Howdy,’ not ‘Shalom!’”) We are supposed to see that the adversity of Leo’s arrest, and attendant publicity, has brought out her internal fortitude so that, by the time of their duet, Lucille has grown to be a strong supportive wife on whom Leo depends. “This Is Not Over Yet” is probably the most persuasive moment in the apparent effort to (re)cast “Parade” as a great romance

Even here, in this galvanizing song that celebrates both the hopeful news and also the strengthened bond  between the couple, there is a verse that gives me pause:

Hail the resurrection of
The South’s least fav’rite son
It means I made a vow for better.
Two is better than one!
it means the journey ahead might get shorter. I might reach the end of my rope!
but suddenly, loud as a mortar,
there is hope! 

In this one verse, we get symbolism and irony and foreshadowing – “resurrection,” which is what Christians, not Jews, talk about;   “the South’s fav’rite son”; and especially “the end of my rope.”  Is this anything that Leo would say?  Are we supposed to accept that the nebbishy manager of a pencil factory is as clever and self-aware as a Broadway lyricist? That last phrase doesn’t even really make sense except  as an allusion to the character’s eventual illegal hanging.  

“Parade” marked Jason Robert Brown’s Broadway debut as a songwriter, while still in his twenties, and there is much that is impressive about the score. It’s a lesson in the use of pastiche, with Brown, like an acolyte of Charles Ives, incorporating a wide range of musical genres, such as hymns and parade music and sentimental ballads, in a deliberately dissonant collision of styles. 

Kelli Barrett as Mrs Phagan sings “My Child Will Forgive Me” as a lullaby about her murdered daughter Mary Phagan , which ends:

My Mary will teach me
To open my heart,
And so I forgive you,

whose antisemitic kicker is almost as effective as the one in “If You Could See Her (The Gorilla Song)” from “Cabaret.”

Platt sings  “Come Up to My Office,” a swinging jazz tune, which seems exactly right in his re-enactment of a swinger, which is  how the factory girls depict him when (falsely) testifying that Leo tried to seduce them. 

In the foreground: Jay Armstrong Johnson as newspaperman Britt Craig interviews Jake Pedersen as Frankie Epps, the slain girl’s would-be boyfriend.

Jay Armstrong Johnson as Britt Craig, a newspaperman, sings “Real Big News,” a vaudeville-like number that reminded me of similar dark celebratory tunes in the musical “Chicago,” 

Take this superstitious city, add one little Jew from Brooklyn, plus a college education and a mousy little wife,
and big news! real big news!
that poor sucker saved my life! 

Big news, real big news
My savior has finally come

(again with “savior,” a sardonic allusion to Christian rhetoric. At least the newspaperman is a snarky enough character so that it might be something he would say.)

Alex Joseph Grayson as James Conley – the Black sweeper in the pencil factory who some historians assert may actually have committed the murder —   testifies against Frank in “That’s What He Said,” a kind of gospel song, complete with the townsfolk echoing him in a kind of Hallelujah chorus.

I wish I could say I enjoyed listening to the score as thoroughly as I appreciated its intelligence, but its many highlights alternate with an insistent operatic or declamatory quality that I at times found wearing.

A bigger surprise than the ambitious score by a young songwriter, is the pedestrian book by Alfred Uhry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” a Southern Jew himself who not only grew up in Atlanta; he is reportedly related to the owner of the pencil factory that Leo Frank managed.

the falsely testifying factory girls: Ashlyn Maddox, Sophia Manicone, Emily Rose DeMartino

Much of Act I is taken up with the trial. Shortly after the song “This Is Not Over Yet” in Act II, Leo’s wife Lucille accompanies Governor Slaton (standout Sean Allan Krill) as he re-questions the witnesses who we saw testify against Leo, exposing their testimony to be false – coached or coerced. This results in the governor’s brave (and politically suicidal) step of commuting Leo Frank’s sentence from the death penalty to life in prison. The main reasons that historians give for the governor’s decision do not correspond with what we see on stage, but, more to the point, the likelihood of Leo Frank’s wife actually having played amateur avenging detective alongside the governor of Georgia is nil.  This trivializing invention lessens the credibility of the character, and undercuts the effort to make Lucille the emotional center of the story. It also feels especially misguided in a production that never lets us forget that the story is based on historical events. The set itself is almost abstract (influenced by Encores concert bare-bones design) looking like an antiques store cluttered with wooden furniture, beneath a plain raised platform that serves variously as courtroom, prison cell and scaffolding, but each time we meet new characters, we’re shown a projected photograph of the actual historical figures, as well as newspaper headlines from the time.

It’s a reminder of how thoroughly documented the trial and its aftermath, and how much it made national news. 

It’s still making news. Before the play begins, we’re shown a close-up of a plaque erected by the Georgia Historical Society that points out Frank was granted a posthumous pardon in 1986 “without addressing his guilt or innocence” because of the state’s failure to protect him and to bring his killers to justice.  At the end of the play, we’re told that the Fulton County district attorney reopened the case in 2019, and “it is still ongoing.”

I don’t know what to make of the fact that Leo Frank’s guilt or innocence is still being intensely debated on the Internet; it’s unclear to me how much of this debate is motivated by antisemitism – although there was of course no such ambiguity when self-proclaimed neo-Nazis picketed the first preview of “Parade.”    If this unsettled century-old criminal case can seem like an unsettling choice for a call to arms against antisemitism, the staging of the last fifteen minutes of “Parade” – the mise en scene, the final devastating song by Leo Frank – are undeniably unsettling, but in the right way.

Bernard B. Jacobs Theater through August 6, 2023
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes (including a 15 minute intermission)
Tickets: $74-$278
Book by Alfred Uhry. Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Co-conceived by Harold Prince. Directed by Michael Arden. Orchestrations by Don Sebesky and Jason Robert Brown. Music director and conductor Tom Murray. Choreographed by Lauren Yalango-Grant and Christopher Cree Grant. 
Scenic design by Dane Laffrey. Costume design by Susan Hilferty. Lighting design by Heather Gilbert. Sound design by Jon Weston. Projection design by Sven Ortel. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Music coordinator Kimberlee Wertz.
Cast: Ben Platt as Leo Frank, Micaela Diamond as Lucille Frank, Alex Joseph Grayson as Jim Conley, Sean Allan Krill as Governor Slaton, Howard McGillin, Paul Alexander Nolan as Hugh Dorsey, Jay Armstrong Johnson as Britt Craig, Kelli Barrett as Mrs. Phagan, Courtnee Carter, Eddie Cooper, Erin Rose Doyle, Manoel Felciano, Danielle Lee Greaves, Douglas Lyons, Jake Pedersen as Frankie Epps, Florrie Bagel, Stacie Bono, Harry Bouvy, Tanner Callicut, Max Chernin, Emily Rose DeMartino, Bailee Endebrock, Caroline Fairweather, Christopher Gurr, Beth Kirkpatrick, Ashlyn Maddox, Sophia Manicone, William Michals, Prentiss E. Mouton, Jackson Teeley, Ryan Vona, Charlie Webb as young soldier, and Aurelia Williams.

Photographs by Joan Marcus

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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