"Parade" makeover a neglected masterpiece

Mon Oct 5, 2009 11:45pm EDT
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By Les Spindle

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - "Parade" eloquently dramatizes a real-life tragic miscarriage of justice that occurred in 1913 in Atlanta: the false conviction and ultimate mob lynching of Jewish factory superintendent Leo Frank, accused of murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan.

The Mark Taper Forum's triumphant staging (running though November 15) feels like a long-delayed vindication of a separate injustice: the inexplicable obscurity of this watershed musical, which evokes the rapturous sweep of grand opera.

Although it deservedly won Tonys for Alfred Uhry's literate book and Jason Robert Brown's extraordinary score, the uncommonly dark and challenging 1998 show hasn't gained a foothold in a marketplace dominated by frothy, formulaic fare.

Director-choreographer Rob Ashford unveiled a retooled version at London's Donmar Warehouse in 2007, which he replicates here. It's leaner and more intimate than Harold Prince's slick staging for the original Broadway production. This affords a richer realization of the show's galvanizing themes: government-supported bigotry against blacks and Jews (shockingly pitted against each other) and the terrifying power of mob rule.

Brown's music and lyrics -- which combine ragtime, folk music, patriotic anthems, blues, gospel and more -- profoundly illuminate the personal and cultural calamities recounted here. Celebratory pageantry ironically alternates with bloodthirsty sentiments, driven by the wounded pride of defeated Civil War veterans, still embittered toward the Northern Yankees, as exemplified by Brooklyn-born outsider Frank.

The explosive story is well-served by a magnificent cast. "Grey's Anatomy" veteran T.R. Knight's musical-theater debut as the beleaguered Leo -- whose eccentricity and social isolationism contributed to the suspicions against him -- is astonishing. Musically and dramatically, his is a knockout portrayal, as intellectually provocative as it is heartbreaking. Complementing Knight's nuanced interpretation is that of lovely voiced Lara Pulver, reprising her London role of Leo's wife, Lucille. Pulver movingly depicts the courage and tenacity displayed by Lucille in seeking justice for Leo. The climactic scenes wherein Lucille and Leo break through emotional barriers in their relationship are electrifying.

Of special note in the splendid ensemble are P.J. Griffith's ruthless minister, David St. Louis as two black suspects in the killing, Charlotte d'Amboise as Mary's grief-stricken mother, Christian Hoff as the unprincipled prosecuting attorney and Michael Berresse's double turns as an opportunistic journalist and the self-serving governor.

Christopher Oram's inspired set and costumes and Neil Austin's exquisite lighting capture the faded glory of the old South as well as the story's potent aura of moral anarchy. Tom Murray's music direction is sublime. Here's hoping this shimmering production instigates a renewed interest in this neglected masterpiece.

(Editing by DGoodman at Reuters)