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Trial and Eros

"Parade" is a somber musical that works.

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Warning: do not skip the two short closing reviews of works by Diana Son and John Guare (our most mispronounced playwright -- rhymes with hare). They matter.

Parade is a dark musical, a topic much discussed currently. The 1913-1915 case of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn-born Jew lynched, despite his innocence, by an anti-northern and anti-Semitic Georgia mob for the murder of a 13-year-old girl, is about as dark as a subject can get; the murders in Sweeney Todd are essentially comic, almost like those in Arsenic and Old Lace; and in South Pacific, a tragic death is canceled out by a happy ending. The illegal execution of a guiltless man, whose death sentence the governor of the state had already overturned, however, is truly tragic and nowise sugarcoated in the show.

Now, why shouldn't what is rather too loosely called "musical comedy" by some embrace a darker subject as long as it is handled with intelligence, skill, and, wherever possible, humor? This is not a monochromatically somber piece, but a suspenseful slice of unvarnished life, mixing anguish and grief with smiles and laughs, and graced with exceptional production values.

Religious or racial prejudice and xenophobia are not likely to go away as long as human nature is what it is. There are and will be other Leo Franks of one kind or another, guilty of nothing more than being outsiders and lacking charisma. Parade rates an A for courage and professionalism, and is superior, even as sheer entertainment, to the crudeness of a Scarlet Pimpernel and the ineptitude of a Footloose.

I concede that the score by the young and promising Jason Robert Brown seldom rises above the serviceable. It is not derivative and does advance the plot; it does not, however, meet the higher demands of, say, the final duet for Leo and his wife, Lucille, where transcendence is called for. But the book by Alfred Uhry, the gifted playwright and expert on Atlanta Jewish life, is consistently apt and gripping. It gamely tackles a complex and sprawling subject, neither oversimplifying nor forfeiting cohesiveness. It enlightens without preachment, and lets the dramatic or ironic prose merge seamlessly with the musical numbers.

Next, Parade, named after the Confederate Memorial Day parade that frames the action, boasts a wonderfully stimulating physical production. The sets by Riccardo Hernández are richly evocative and find the proper blend of realism and stylization, of solidity and fluidity, of Here and Beyond. Note especially that mighty, overarching oak, whose brooding presence keeps growing in ominous import. Judith Dolan's costumes are suitably understated and nicely in period, and Howell Binkley's lighting adds subtle ironies of its own.

Whoever plays Leo Frank faces the awesome task of having to be winning without obvious charm, manly despite his mousiness, and a star performer in a role that, except for its length, has none of the splashy attributes of a star vehicle. I cannot think of anyone else nowadays able to carry this off with such shining modesty, such exemplary avoidance of mannerism, such unswerving conviction and convincingness as Brent Carver. He is matched every step of the way by the Lucille of Carolee Carmello. She plays a modern-day Joan of Arc without a scintilla of false -- or even inapposite real -- glamour, and infuses seeming ordinariness with enough lambent faith and dauntless determination to move a good-size mountain, if not budge human stupidity.

If I mention no further names it is because they are too numerous and form an ensemble that should not be fractured. But glory be to the two guiding lights: Harold Prince (direction) and Patricia Birch (choreography). They have fused speech and song, movement and dance, incisive detail and all-encompassing panorama into as compact a whole as is dramatically possible. Parade, which could have been a millstone, emerges as a milestone.


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