(Photo credit Paul R. Kennedy)
Written by Mike Martin
Lets not bury the lead on this one: Parade is one of the best executed shows I’ve seen in some time. I have some quibbles with it, which you can read below, but this production cannot be faulted for its execution. The voices range from good to spectacular. The technical aspects are almost without fault, and the music is brilliantly executed. All that being said, I could not give this show the full 10/10 rating. However, I am aware my negatives may not be yours, so I’ll leave those for the end.
The cast is nearly flawless. Special mention goes to Jacob Ben-Shmuel and Kelsey Jenison who play the roles of Leo and Lucille Frank. Ben-Shmuel has the daunting task of taking a lead character that is expressly written to be fairly unlikable and turning in a nuanced and moving performance. Jenison has a voice that is pretty much Broadway ready and, like Ben-Shmuel, takes what could have been a two-dimensional role and fills out the blank spots admirably. Taylor Fagins continues to get stronger in the role of Jim Conley as the show progresses, and Nicholas Ehlen turn in one of the most committed performances of the evening with his fiery and frightening Tom Watson.
The nine piece orchestra tackles this sometimes difficult score with ease, and every piece of music is a joy to listen to. The single piece set design is impressive and cleverly depicts various locales with the lighting’s help. The costumes are transportive and lend a sense of time that fills in the scenic gaps. Lighting and sound are unobtrusive when necessary but quite effective when used overtly.
So… What did I have an issue with? The show itself, I’m afraid. Don’t get me wrong, Parade has a great foundation. To quote itself, “The musical dramatizes the 1913 trial of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank, who was accused and convicted of raping and murdering a thirteen-year-old employee, Mary Phagan. The trial, sensationalized by the media, aroused antisemitic tensions in Atlanta and the U.S. state of Georgia. When Frank’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison, thanks to the departing Governor of Georgia and John M. Slaton (who created a detailed review of over 10,000 pages of testimony and possible problems with the trial), Leo Frank was transferred to a prison in Milledgeville, Georgia where a lynching party seized and kidnapped him. Frank was taken to Phagan’s hometown of Marietta, Georgia and hanged from an oak tree. The events surrounding the investigation and trial led to two groups emerging –the revival of the defunct KKK and the birth of the Jewish Civil Rights organization, the Anti-Defamation League.” There. Plot done. Thank you internet.
The problem is the show takes nearly two and a half hours to tell that story –overstaying its welcome. This was composer Jason Robert Brown’s first Broadway endeavor, and it shows. It seems as if he had been trying to cram in every song he’d ever written in case he didn’t get another shot at it. More problematic is that the music and lyrics, while lovely, rarely further the plot. Instead they often rehash the scene that proceeds them. This led to noticeable antsy behavior in my audience (and some chair dancing from myself) as we waited for it to simply end.
Also problem is the story itself. It’s fine for what it is and has a great framework to build from, but it never becomes much more than a framework. Few –if any –characters have arcs, so they are relegated to being flat, two-dimensional, cutouts. The audience is left to infer these players’ virtues and vices without ever seeing them onstage.
One of the things that prompts me to talk this way about the material is that there is another show out there that also deals with racism and turn of the century America going through its growing pains. That musical is Ragtime, and it explores multiple characters in-depth while never losing its beauty. It debuted within a year of Parade, and, in my opinion, it justly overshadowed Parade.
All this begs the question –is it possible for a show to be amazingly performed and still have you looking at your watch for 45 minutes? Reluctantly I have come to the conclusion that I believe it is. Go see it, but your mileage may vary.
November 12th – 20th 2016