Set in Georgia between 1913 and 1915, PARADE examines the true story of Leo Frank, a transplanted Brooklyn-bred Jew accused of killing a thirteen-year-old girl in the Atlanta pencil factory he managed. The musical exposé of bigotry, injustice, and vigilantism, with a book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Alfred Uhry and a score by Jason Robert Brown (co-conceived by Harold Prince), offers a deeply disturbing socio-political statement about the lingering attitudes of the Confederacy well after its defeat in the Civil War. From the prologue’s nostalgic “Old Red Hills of Home” to the song’s now ironic reprise in the finale (beautifully sung by Michael Philip O’Brien as a Confederate soldier), the profound message resonates with every note in the Arden Theatre Company’s understated production, as directed by Terrence J. Nolen.
PARADE’s music, performed by the Arden’s fifteen-member ensemble and live eight-piece orchestra, pays homage to a variety of relevant period styles—the lively ragtime enjoyed at the Governor’s party (“Pretty Music”); the spirituals and blues of the Old South soulfully sung by the laundress and shoeshine attendant (“A Rumblin’ and A Rollin’”) and a chain gang (“Blues: Feel the Rain“); and the Hebrew invocation offered by the doomed Frank (“Abduction and Sh’ma”)—that draw a parallel between the racism suffered by African-Americans, which attracted little attention in the North, and the anti-Semitism experienced by Jews, which became a cause célèbre of the liberal “Yankees.”
Philadelphia favorite Ben Dibble stars as Frank, the outsider who became an easy scapegoat for a murder he didn’t commit, set up in a blood-thirsty rush to judgment, vilified in paid interviews with disgruntled mercenary employees by a star reporter (the excellent Jeffrey Coon) , and convicted by false witnesses coached by the biased police and prosecutor. Derrick Cobey turns in an especially passionate performance as Jim Conley, the factory’s janitor and most likely suspect, and brings down the house with his scathing court testimony in the gospel-style “That’s What He Said.” Scott Greer’s amusing song and dance as Governor John Slaton and the underlying love story between Leo and his devoted wife Lucille (Jennie Eisenhower) provide brief moments of respite from the horror and ugliness of man’s inhumanity to man, but above all PARADE is a true ensemble piece, with the large cast exhibiting en masse a hateful and violent mob mentality and a shocking travesty of justice.
A stunning artistic design employs a dark and ominous stage with grimly focused spotlights (lighting by Thom Weaver); an enormous gilt picture frame enclosing distressed sepia-toned projections of texts about the Confederacy, background scenes and titles that set the dates and locales, and live feeds of the cast that evoke old silent movies (scenic and video design by Jorge Cousineau); and foreboding ropes that lower parts of the set and props, display the costumes, and foreshadow Leo Frank’s tragic demise in a narrative that begins and ends with the titular Confederate Memorial Day parade, but will live on in infamy throughout our American history. September 2-November 3, 2013, ardentheatre.org.
Postscript: Leo Frank was posthumously pardoned by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles in 1986, not because of his innocence, but on the technical grounds that his lynching denied him the right to further appeals. His killers, though all known to local citizens, were never charged or prosecuted; their prominent names were finally made public in 2000.