Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 16, 2023
Cast: Ben Platt, Micaela Diamond, Alex Joseph Grayson, Sean Allan Krill, Howard McGillin, Paul Alexander Nolan, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Kelli Barrett, Courtnee Carter, Eddie Cooper, Erin Rose Doyle, Manoel Felciano, Danielle Lee Greaves, Douglas Lyons, Jake Pedersen, Florrie Bagel, Stacie Bono, Harry Bouvy, Tanner Callicut, Max Chernin, Emily Rose DeMartino, Bailee Endebrock, Caroline Fairweather, Christopher Gurr, Beth Kirkpatrick, Ashlyn Maddox, Sophia Manicone, William Michals, Prentiss E. Mouton, Jackson Teeley, Ryan Vona, Charlie Webb, and Aurelia Williams.
Theater: Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W 45th St, New York NY
Well, time to freshen up the snuffbox and pass it around again, because now that Parade has landed at Broadway's Jacobs Theatre, every quibble about the production has been thoroughly addressed and the whole shebang is bright and shiny and gloriously thrilling.
Please note, I will be spending the rest of this review gushing. About the performances. About the overall design. And especially about Michael Arden's direction. But first, a quick synopsis: In 1913, a transplanted-from-Brooklyn Jewish man named Leo Frank was living in Georgia, where he supervised an Atlanta pencil factory. In a Kafkaesque twist of fate, he was charged with murdering one of his workers, a 13-year-old girl by the name of Mary Phagan. Without a shred of evidence, he was quickly tried, convicted, imprisoned, and later abducted by a lynch mob and hanged. Rough fodder out of which to create a musical, but there you have it.
From the time of its original Broadway production, and through to and including the one at City Center, Parade generally has been presented in a sardonically and darkly satirical style, aggressively assaulting the audience with barely a moment's pause. To quote my own review from the City Center outing, "it is as subtle as a sledgehammer, and one that keeps pounding away for two-and-a-half hours."
But now, there has been a most fortunate dialing back. Not a word of dialog has been changed, but, under Michael Arden's revised direction, the one-dimensional figures have become human beings, from the young Confederate soldier (Charlie Webb) who starts us off with the prologue number, "The Old Red Hills of Home," through to the character of Leo Frank himself, formerly an unknowable cipher and now gloriously realized by Ben Platt, and not just for his singing.
That is the biggest thing that had been missing all along. The "heart" of the show has previously rested solely with Leo's wife Lucille. Here, Micaela Diamond performs the role as beautifully and movingly and powerfully as she did at City Center. But being the heart for an entire show is a heavy burden to bear. So how wonderful it is to see things come into a new balance with Platt's central performance. Lucille and Leo are equal partners through this horrendous experience, something that remains true whether they are singing the soaring 11 o'clock duet of hope ("This Is Not Over Yet") or facing the world singly. The connection between them is now clearly unbreakable so that our own hearts cannot help but reach out to them in return.
Every performance feels right now, so that we can readily perceive the force of political ambitions that drive the aggressive prosecution of Frank by attorney Hugh Dorsey. Playing that role is a terrific Paul Alexander Nolan, who has joined many of the others in lowering the heat of his performance so that he is less of the devil incarnate and more a win-at-any-cost politico, someone we unfortunately can recognize quite well. Throughout the evening, and for better or for worse, everyone's humanity is right there for us to see.
Again, going back to the City Center production, one of the more annoying elements was the constant display of newspaper headlines and photos from around the time of the actual events. It's as if we were being force-fed the "facts" of the story when we are perfectly capable of figuring out that, yes, this musical is based on things that really happened in real life to real people. Happily, the projections are now fewer, less obtrusive, and confined to a back wall. Balance is an amazing thing to observe in such a challenging show, where the creative team and the cast members have to trust the audience to understand what is going on without all of the exclamation marks and road maps.
Finally, I want to go back to Jason Robert Brown's score. Not only is the music perfectly suited to the content of the show, but the lyrics intelligently and effectively do their job in helping to define both the characters and the situations. Much praise to sound designer Jon Weston because every single word can be heard distinctly and clearly. We need to be able to hear those lyrics because they are worth listening to.
Bottom line: if you saw Parade at City Center, see it again at its new home at the Jacobs Theatre. If you missed it in November, don't let the grass grow under your feet. There is unlikely ever to be a better production.