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Theater review: 'Parade' at the Mark Taper Forum

October 4, 2009 | 10:00 pm

Parade1

Jason Robert Brown’s entrancing Tony-winning score for “Parade,” the 1998 musical he wrote with playwright Alfred Uhry (whose book also won a Tony), throws patches of suggestive light on a dark historical episode. Music may be inherently abstract, but Brown’s compositional variety and depth of instrumental feeling imbue supple melodies with moral color.  

The distinguishing mark of the Donmar Warehouse’s scaled-down version of “Parade,” which opened this weekend at the Mark Taper Forum, is how well Brown’s musical intelligence is deployed to deepen the implications of this troubling tale. The show is challenging both in terms of subject matter and style. But this freshly conceived production, directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford, is a potent antidote to the jukebox mindlessness running rampant today and an urgent reminder of what contemporary composers are still capable of achieving.

Before going any further, let’s make one thing perfectly clear to theatergoers of a happy-go-lucky bent: This is not the fluffy stuff most musical entertainments are made of. “Parade” grapples ambitiously with the 1913 trial of Leo Frank, the Jewish factor manager who was accused and dubiously convicted of raping and murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old employee. The search to punish the perpetrator of this brutal crime gave rise to a miscarriage of justice, in which noxious prejudices against African-Americans and Jews were set against each other and inconclusive evidence was all that was required to confirm resentments and fears.

Parade2 T.R. Knight, formerly of the acclaimed TV series “Grey’s Anatomy,” portrays Leo, a serious and self-effacing Ivy League-educated New Yorker, who has come to Atlanta to run a pencil factory. Alienated as much by personal temperament as cultural background, he is having an awfully hard time assimilating to his wife’s world, which seems to him a galaxy away from Brooklyn.

“For the life of me, I can’t understand how God created you people Jewish and Southern at the same time!” he yells after she asks him to avoid using Yiddishisms. Unfazed, Lucille (Lara Pulver, a holdover from the Donmar Warehouse production in London) sends him affectionately off to work, even though it’s Confederate Memorial Day and she’d rather have a picnic and watch the parade, a celebratory ritual he considers utterly ludicrous.

From the outset, “Parade” highlights the clash of sensibilities that will inform the way Leo’s fate will play out. His outsider status — directly related in the song “How Can I Call This Home?” — is what puts him under suspicion after the body of Mary Phagan (Rose Sezniak) is discovered in his factory’s basement.

Ashford, the assistant choreographer on the original Lincoln Center Theater production, which was directed by Harold Prince, who co-conceived the musical, walks an interpretive tightrope, especially in the first half. Leo’s nervous demeanor raises legitimate questions about his innocence, yet the case that’s being made against him by the prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey (Christian Hoff), is marred by all sorts of disturbing biases.

Hanging another black man “ain’t enough this time,” says Hugh, who’s sure of Leo’s guilt even though he’s still questioning Newt Lee, the night watchman who found the dead body, and Jim Conley, the janitor who has a lot of holes in his testimony. David St. Louis, equipped with a rich deep voice, plays both of these African-American characters, and this practice of having cast members assume multiple roles seems intended to emphasize patterns rather than individuals.

Uhry’s book doesn’t make it easy for newcomers to the saga to sort out all of the principal figures (for that you might want to check out Ben Loeterman’s film “The People v. Leo Franks," which premieres nationally on PBS on Nov. 2). The ensemble features some outstanding talents — Michael Berresse and Charlotte d’Amboise, who play the governor and his wife, among other parts — but it’s not easy to become well acquainted with anyone in particular.

Compounding the problem is Ashford’s penchant for creating striking scenic pictures that capture broader cultural forces better than they unveil interior struggles. At the end of the first act, Leo and Lucille are hoisted on chairs, a chilling way of foreshadowing the reckless manipulation of the justice system that will end with Leo’s lynching. But the growing intimacy that occurs in their marriage during his time in jail is sketched only in the broadest of strokes.

Knight and Pulver are faithful to the material in a way that seems commendably realistic. But the writing keeps their characters somewhat opaque, and at several points it occurred to me how much Leo would just detest being in a musical. (Clifford Odets maybe, in a mute walk-on.)

Christopher Oram’s scenic design — a two-tiered set that variously serves as a factory, court house and prison and works nicely with the subdued hues of his period costumes — and Neil Austin’s sublimely atmospheric lighting contribute greatly to the production’s visual panache. What’s more, the staging sounds as good as it looks, thanks to musical director Tom Murray’s dramatically sensitive handling of the nine-person orchestra, of which he’s a member.

Brown has written two songs for the Donmar revival, “Hammer of Justice” and “The Glory,” and cut a couple of others; Uhry has made a number of revisions in the script. Will these tweaks or Ashford’s tighter presentation vindicate the musical for those who found the show distant and impersonal when it was first done? Probably not. But rather than demand that “Parade” conform to more familiar models, let’s just appreciate the grave beauty of its expansive view and celebrate a score that’s determined for a change to make us think.

-- Charles McNulty

"Parade," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (Call for exceptions). Ends Nov. 15. $20 to $80. (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.


Photo: Top: Lara Pulver and T.R. Knight. Credit: Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times. Bottom: David St. Louis. Credit: Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times.   

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