Review: In Broadway revival of 'Parade,' a story of Southern antisemitism remains too much on the surface
Published in Entertainment News
NEW YORK — At the new Broadway production of “Parade,” the customary recorded admonition to silence cellphones is delivered by no less a personage than Raphael Warnock, the U.S. senator from Georgia.
Clearly, that’s an effort to acknowledge that while this somber, gorgeously scored Jason Robert Brown musical is about the prejudiced 1913 murder trial and subsequent lynching of a Jewish man, Leo Frank, in that Peach State in 1915, everyone involved knows that it was Black Georgians who were far more likely to suffer that fate. And, of course, it’s also a tacit statement that the racist forces of corruption and intolerance that figure in the piece remain very much at large.
The new revival, which stars Ben Platt in the title role, is a more politically engaged “Parade” than the one I remember more than 20 years ago, less of a melancholy exploration of the clash of cultural division and more of an explicit indictment of Southern Republicans and their jingoistic, lingering, festering loyalties to the remnants of the Confederacy, a hotbed of racism and antisemitism.
Which makes it all the more strange that Platt offers a beautifully sung but less than empathetic performance in the leading role. So much so, in fact, that I wondered if this hugely talented Broadway star had allowed all of the noise out there to get to him.
There’s no question that Brown’s incarnation of Frank, a Brooklyn transfer and the manager of an Atlanta pencil factory, is a troubled man, a lousy communicator who was often remote, imperious and self-involved. But the trajectory of the musical clearly suggests that he becomes more self-aware over time, finally seeing his own sexism and understanding that his Southern-born wife, played by Micaela Diamond, could help him better than he can help himself.
By Act 2, Frank also realizes that few have overcome racial hatred through bookish research but rather by looking the haters in the eye, finding allies in the fight against them and forcing the ignorant to see our shared humanity.
To put all that more simply, “Parade” is very much about Southern antisemitism, but it also has a protagonist who makes a journey toward better knowing both his world and himself.
Platt sounds spectacular and nothing he does feels fake. Yet his Leo Frank seems much the same at the end of the show at the beginning, and just as remote. Perhaps that’s indicative of the political shift of the moment, where any kind of change in such a character risks being seen as his capitulation to the forces of intolerance, even though I think book writer Alfred Uhry and Brown intended exactly the opposite.
All those years ago, as I watched the composer conducting the pit orchestra in Green Bay, Wisconsin, I remember the stunning opening number of “Parade,” titled “The Red Hills of Georgia,” originally coming off as a lament for what the South could have achieved had it actually managed to vanquish its deep-seated sins of racism and intolerance. At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre the other night, the number, superbly sung by an unnamed Confederate soldier (Charlie Webb) returning from the war, felt more like the fascistic “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” from “Cabaret.”
So America has gone these past two decades, and Broadway has had no choice but to pick a side.
But as they note over at “Hamilton,” history is not inevitable. And musicals are about humans, their triumphs and errors. So that disconnect, that lack of nuance, that absence of the present-tense pulse of possibility and the sense that the world only spins forward, indicates the central flaw in this passionately performed but not entirely secure production from the director Michael Arden. Powerful projections created by Sven Ortel on Dane Laffrey’s set link the fictionalized characters we are watching with the real-life historical figures.
The strengths here include a wonderful supporting performance from Kelli Barrett, playing the mother of the murdered girl (”My Child Will Forgive Me” brought me to tears) and also from Sean Allan Krill, playing the Georgia governor who finally sees his obligation to the truth and the need to fight off the malevolent prosecutor (Paul Alexander Nolan).
The gutsiest work of the night flows from the spectacular Alex Joseph Grayson, playing Jim Conley, the likely perpetrator of the crime for which Frank is blamed. Conley’s big number is blisteringly powerful. And there are some very potent moments from Diamond, even if the final, wrenching scenes with Platt don’t for me, at least, pack the emotional punch I’ve experienced before at this show.
There’s nothing inevitable about “Parade,” anymore than there was about America’s abiding intolerance. And that’s the tricky thing about a show that always has inhabited a space somewhere between the melodramatic and the tragic. But melodrama just confirms. A richer understanding of the error of our collective ways always come from tragedy.
On Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York; paradebroadway.com.
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