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Theater review: 'Parade' at the Mark Taper Forum

October 4, 2009 | 10:00 pm


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.   

Comments () | Archives (14)

This review feels surprisingly brief for such an important piece of theater here in Los Angeles. If Center Theater Group is the supposed gold standard for theater in LA, then don't they deserve something more substantial? Don't we?

Having seen the original production, I was very much looking forward to seeing this musical again in Los Angeles, but it has a lot of problems. A lot of Rob Ashford's ideas don't seem to be fully fleshed out (why is the image of Lila haunting the action? A clearer symbolic tie seemed necessary) and the double casting was very confusing. The biggest disappointment for me was that the show is just not well sung. This reviewer doesn't really mention that, but TR Knight is a great actor but he can't handle the music.

Center Theater Group is the gold standard for theater in LA?

That's news to me.

Unless a remount of a London production of a Broadway musical does now qualifies as Los Angeles Theater.

But there could have been more coverage of the piece nonetheless. I dunno, something like:


I knew calling it the gold standard would get me in trouble! That's cool. I definitely think this counts as Los Angeles theater, there's only one person from the Donmar production here, and it had a full rehearsal process and previews here. While the concept is the same as the Donmar, it's a whole new beast.

Saw opening and thought it was wonderful! I didn't see the original; however have really enjoyed the cd for the past 10 years. Went to see the show without huge expectations, but was sucked into the production and really thought it was well done in a smaller venue and that the performers were outstanding. I liked T.R. Knight's performance, especially his mannerisms for Leo. Lara Pulver and David St. Louis' vocals stole the show. Totally worth seeing, enjoying, and crying over at the same time!

Brilliant in every respect. I cannot understand why the reviewer would want to compare this work what one has learned to expect of " musicals" . . just enjoy something original and challenging, but at the same time great theater and music

"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."

Funny, but what occurred to me was that this was an ironic reference to a Jewish wedding ritual. Perhaps the director was implying that it took this conviction to allow Leo and Lucille to begin to truly come together? However, at the time it seemed as though it was the anti-Semetic court and Southerners mocking their marriage.

This was the third time I have seen Parade, it's original broadway run, in London, and now here. And I think this Donmar production is a league apart from the original production. All performances were strong, however for me Lara Pulver stole the show. Sure she had a headstart from London, and that was a true genius act to bring her over (though I believe she's married to an American so I guess that was pretty easy). T.R. Knight I thought acted it very well, but his vocals just didn't match Lara's, and that I felt was a shame. It would really have been amazing for them to have brought over Bertie Carvel who played the role in London, but I guess they have their reasons. I was dubious going into this as I didn't think anything could match the London cast, and I still believe as an ensemble, they were much better, but I still enjoyed my evening and I'm glad that this production is being mounted.

This show was a at times brilliant and at times dull and confusing. There were so many beautiful voices that T.R. knight's vocal shortcomings were more noticeable. In my opinion it could have used a few less scenes.

This was my first visit to the Mark Taper Forum, where I went to the Amelia Taper Theater and the Dick Taper restroom, buried deep in the bowels of the building. I climbed the Taper steps, none yet named for other Taper family members. This is one of the least user-friendly venues I have attended. The lack of directional signage seems due to the room for signs being all taken by the Taper family's need to plaster their name everywhere. The ushers were totally worthless in helping people but preferred to stand like statues

I found this play to be riveting. The psrformances were sublime and T.R. Knight was heartbreakingly good. I loved his singing voice in all it's subtlety and nuance. He really made you feel for this man and how he was such an outcast in his Southern wife's world. I cried at the end. I would see this play again.

okay FINALLY got signed on here to post, if this version works....cyber-gods at LA Times, please note: we should be able to "log in" from any page of your site, not just the homepage. And your Search Engine needs a serious overhaul....ever heard of "Advanced Search"?

That being said, back to PARADE. i hadn't seen B'way or Donmar Number One, only regional and community productions. Love the cast recording so was looking so forward to it and consider JRB a genius.

Can you feel the but coming?

The structure of this piece eludes me. If Uhry, master of structure in DAISY and BALLYHOO, and JRB, one of the smartest minds ever, can't solve it, how can the normal theatregoer? we need help.

The singing in a more naturalistic style actually helped me along....i loved how the transitions from good southern spoken dialect (i'm from there, and they got it mostly right) into singing was much more fluid that way. Lucille was particularly adept at this.

The multi-casting: folks, that is how you get names like Beresse and D'Amboise and Hoff into the feature roles, cuz they get to play several and do it well. A savvy audience goer also gets the treat of seeing them morph. It works.

The Lilah figure? didn't get it. The south-as-a-region-determined-to-alienate-this-Jew? didn't get it.

Leo's character itself needs to be stronger...making the entire south his antagonist isn't enough. This choice negated the lovely growth of Lucille and Leo's relationship that can be heard on the CD....and that i've seen in other productions. Despite strong acting, the overshadowing of persecution in general left us MADE to feel for Leo, instead of letting his evolution through Lucille's blossoming LETTING us empathize.

It was great. It could have been greater. The ensemble singing amazing (were the stand-bys backstage augmenting the choral sound?) and the stage pictures stunning. However, without careful character analyis and tracking individuals instead of Atlanta-as-lynch-mob, we are confused as audience members. And there is too much dancing. Yes, Ashford has those skills. Yes, artfully applied it adds variety. But too much makes it too obvious, as Lucille's important confrontation with the Governor becomes a throwaway to how well Beresse can partner D'Amboise.

The piece needs some objectivity...it's a dream team of colloborators, but they share their own vision only with each other.

After hearing about Parade I ordered the CD a year or two ago. Based on that I was eagerly waiting for a professional production. After I made plans to attend this production, three out of town (German) visitors decided to visit and I bought tickets for them, hoping it would be a high quality, impressive and understandable production. I was not disappointed, in fact, I was thrilled with the show we saw last Sunday. History, drama, mood, performances, production, everything was outstanding and I know we will all remember it for a long time. I found it to be the best dramatic story I've seen since Angels in America, and the music just shy of the genius of Sondheim. This is why big city life is worth it. Not ostentatious wealth, celebrity, or even the sun & surf. I'm glad the L.A. Opera is successful, but this is the kind of musical theatre drama I will always see, and adore.

In response to the gentleman who made his first trip to the Mark Taper Forum and found the signage not to his liking: Up until last year, women queued up at the outdoor port-a-pots during intermission and before curtain as there were but seven women’s stalls in the theater. Perhaps moving the walls out and rebuilding the theater could have been an option, but it makes much more sense to remove some underground parking to create a lovely open space downstairs, easily accessed by an elevator for those who can’t handle the stairs. The restrooms are now convenient, and more importantly, there is almost no line in the women’s room! It would have been nice had county taxpayers footed the bill for the extensive remodel to the 40-year-old-plus theater but since taxpayers hardly want to fund police and fire services, helping the arts is not on the agenda. Giving the people who paid for the remodel some credit is the very least that can be done. We have been attending shows at the Taper for years. I can’t speak for the show the gentleman attended, but we have never found the ushers to be anything less than enthusiastic and helpful. We found it interesting that he found no one at the bottom of the stairs directing people to the restrooms.

The new Taper theater is a beautiful space that is comfortable and convenient.

Now, if DWP would open its lot again to handle overflow parking ... Has the DWP a problem with making a little extra money? Does it think those water lines are going to repair themselves?

I saw PARADE. It was perhaps the most over rated piece of theater I have ever seen. It was a story that has been told amy times before. Hot, sweaty southerners in a court room. A man accused of a crime he did not commit. "To Kill a Mocking Bird" anyone?The director took the the easy way out and used cliche musical theater storytelling instead of trusting the power of the story itself. It was empty and cheap. The theater world is doing cartwheels over a show that was never that good to begin with. Wake up LA. This is not amazing musical theater.


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