Strong performances from Ben Dibble, left, and Jennie Eisenhower feature in an effective production at the Arden.
Don’t let the cheery title fool you: Parade explores a very dark corner of American history. In 1913, the body of 13-year-old Mary Phagan was found in the Atlanta pencil factory where she worked. She had been raped and murdered. Suspicion quickly turned to factory manager Leo Frank, a Brooklyn-raised Jew whose outsider status seemed to fuel the zeal for prosecution — or, perhaps, persecution is a better word. For the sake of those who don’t know what happened, I won’t spoil it here, but it’s an edge-of-your-seat story with many shocks along the way that the Arden tells in an effective production.
Turning all this into a musical requires ambition, vision and confidence. Composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown has all three, as well as a prodigious gift for composing across a wide range of styles. As you might imagine from the setting, Brown makes ample use of traditional American song forms — folk ballads, hymns, anthems, blues. Many of these are effective, but I like even better some of his more audacious and less predictable choices. “The Factory Girls” is a fascinating, creepy ensemble piece that reveals how much of the testimony is coached. “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’,” the rousing second-act opener that offers an African-American couple’s take on the story, has an evocative, almost ’50s R&B sound. Much of Parade’s score is through-composed, and propels the action with panache.
Talented as he is, Brown’s lyrics are not the equal of his music. Too often the language is general or clichéd, and there isn’t always a sharp focus on character. The songs paint a sympathetic portrait of Frank’s wife, Lucille (played with endearing sweetness and pluck by Jennie Eisenhower), but Frank himself remains enigmatic. Brown and book writer Alfred Uhry are brave to resist making Leo easily likeable, but a deeper sense of him would have been welcome.
Parade was Brown’s first musical on Broadway, written when he was still in his 20s. It’s a major achievement for a young artist, but, perhaps inevitably, there’s some callowness. A few songs that work in isolation distract from the tone and momentum of the central story. “Big News,” a barnstorming number in which a reporter comments on the appetite for scandal, stops the show (especially delivered by clarion-voiced Jeff Coon), but disrupts a moment that should be focused on Frank. Similarly, “Pretty Music,” a charming song-and-dance for the Governor, is delightfully done by Scott Greer, but defuses the intensity of the situation around it.
Parade tells the Frank story in bold strokes and without a lot of nuance. (Uhry’s libretto bears some responsibility for this.) But even knowing the end of the story, I found my heart beating fast in the final moments. Terry Nolen’s visually elegant, streamlined production uses animated, sepia-tinted projections to augment scenes — they’re striking, but occasionally pull focus from the stage action.
In addition to the fine supporting performances by Eisenhower, Coon and Greer, there is excellent work from Anthony Lawton, Robert Hager and several others. Throughout, the acting is accomplished and the voices superb, though I’d be happier if the singing didn’t resort so often to contemporary pop mannerisms that undercut the sense of period. Ben Dibble (as Leo Frank) is a model of restraint about this, and gives a subtle, dignified performance that is all the more moving for its quiet centeredness.
Nolen has long been a champion of Parade, a work that bravely follows the Sondheim tradition of pushing the definition of musical theater. It’s been on the Arden’s radar for years, and judging from the enthusiastic response on opening night, the timing couldn’t be better.
Through Nov. 3, Arden Theatre Company, $36-$48, 40 N. Second St., 215-922-1122, ardentheatre.org.
Theater review: Frost/Nixon
Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon has proven itself on Broadway and film, but I was wary. How does an...
Theater review: Nerds
Too perfect. Fifteen minutes after the opening-night curtain was slated to come up on Nerds, a...
The Grumpy Librarian: "History with a side of medicine" bestsellers
♥ Loved: Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone ♥ Loved: Leif Enger, Peace Like a...