Faulty music gets an honest revival

greatest assets Broadway Revival of “Parade” Jason Robert Brown’s sad, if flawed, music about the 1915 execution of anti-Semitic Leo Frank is youthful.

Husband and wife Leo, Lucille Frank, Ben Platt, and Michaela Diamond are played as startlingly young (and 23-years-old, Diamond really), like a faded picture of your great-great-grandparents you discover in a drawer. People don’t smile or frown, but behind their neutrality is both promise and fear.

Theater review

2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission. Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St.

It’s those conflicting forces that drive this revival, which opens Thursday night at the Bernard P. Jacobs Theatre, and has audiences automatically wanting what’s best for Lucille and Leo — even though we know the quiet life is tragically out of reach for them.

Our concern for their future is a vital layer to an often great show that has always been more concerned with the issues it faces rather than the people it revolves around.

In truth, Parade is a musical that will forever be good rather than great—hampered by writer Alfred Urey’s book of stereotypical Southern cartoons, made less menacing and realistic by its flatness, and by Brown’s brand of both his best songs and his best songs.

But director Michael Arden’s mini-theater, which began as a City Center concert, has heart when it focuses squarely on the Franks’ growing relationship as their struggles fester.

Ben Platt plays Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was lynched in 1915.
Ben Platt plays Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was lynched in 1915.
Joanne Marcus

The show begins and ends with a lush, boisterous number called “Old Red Hills Home,” which is set partly during the Civil War and partly in 1915, suggesting that stubborn Southern pride — undeserved, in this show’s estimation — persists and remains unchanged.

Leo has just moved from Brooklyn to live with Lucille in Marietta, Georgia, where she is from, and feels out of place as a Jewish man—even among Southern Jews. “I thought the Jews were Jews, but I was wrong!” he sings.

And he’s right to feel targeted. While working as a director at the National Pencil Co. , he is arrested on suspicion of murdering a teenage employee named Mary Phagan (Erin Rose Doyle), whose body was found on the premises. There are other suspects, but the authorities willfully ignore them and go after Leo.

It’s those authorities – as written, and what led up to their performance – who drag the “show” down with clichéd, barking dialogue. Lawyer Hugh Dorsey (Paul Alexander Nolan) and reporter Brett Craig (Guy Armstrong Johnson) are particularly one-note on paper.

It appears fake, but pictures of real historical figures are displayed throughout the production on the back wall and sometimes in the middle of a song, which is an unnecessary distraction.

Jason Robert Brown's most powerful piece of music comes from the three factory girls.
Jason Robert Brown’s most powerful piece of music comes from the three factory girls.
Joanne Marcus

Brown’s best music, and Platt’s most heart-wrenching work, comes during his trial, as three factory girls (who have been trained to lie) painstakingly orchestrate their testimony like Abigail from The Crucible. Brown has yet to lead it on any show.

When Leo makes his statement, and Platt sings that his character is unemotional and awkward but innocent, it is the opposite of when he cries at the end of “Dear Evan Hansen,” but the same.

Act Two has more structural issues built in, as Lucille works tirelessly to appeal her husband’s rule and enlists the help of Governor Slaton (Sean Allan Creel) to bring Leo home. The galvanizing number is followed by minutes of aimless procedural wading. But there are a few great moments.

As factory worker and another suspect, Jim Conley, Alex laments Joseph Grayson with “Feel the Rain Fall,” a groovy song that just pops out of nowhere.

And Diamond, which juxtaposes fragility with strength sexy for an actress so young, brings electricity to her duets with Platt: “This Ain’t Over Yet” and the romantic “All Wasted Time,” which fades into the music’s devastating finale.

The elevated platform is a hindrance to launching this "procession" alive.
The elevated platform is an impediment to the launch of this “show” revival.
Joanne Marcus

While Arden’s production is impressively intimate (and predictable), the centerpiece of Dane Laffrey’s set—a raised wooden platform that looks like something you might find on show, or when performing—is a roadblock.

Audience members in the front orchestra have to crane their necks to watch many scenes above the monolith, and the actors are forced to climb some stairs to settle on the strongest points of the stage. The entire cast sitting on stage and observing Leo’s fate was very stark and spatially limited. For me, the structure just takes – it never contributes anything.

Still, Arden has directed a tender production of a musical that can often play like a sledgehammer, and has an excruciatingly relevant anti-hate message.

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