Theater Review: Tragic historic episode set to music

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A dark page in American history has been brought back to light in Alfred Uhrey’s “Parade,” now playing at the Mark Taper Forum. Although the story is an engrossing one, it feels rather uncomfortable set to music. The musical deals with the trial of Leo Frank, a Jew living in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1913 who was accused of murdering a young girl.

As played brilliantly by T.R Knight, Frank is a pathetic figure, extremely vulnerable and lost. The murder of the young girl who worked in the pencil factory he superintended offered an opportunity for ambitious political leaders to make names for themselves. Although a black man was also suspected, it was much more sensational to charge the white man.

Whether the drama is enhanced or diminished by the many musical numbers depends upon one’s sensibilities. Certainly the music by Jason Robert Brown is extremely powerful as are the lyrics. There are many memorable moments, particularly Frank’s sad avowal, “How Can I Call This home” and the sarcastic accusations made in “The Factory Girls.” The smooth politician, Tom Watson, brandishes “The Hammer of Justice” as a blood-and- thunder demagogue. The dénouement points up the horrors of mass hysteria.

The production is first rate, thanks to the efforts of Christopher Oram, who was also responsible for the Southern costumes of the early century. Also deserving a great deal of credit is Rob Ashford, who directed and choreographed the drama.

The large cast, headed by Knight, all added to the excellence of the production. Especially fine was Lara Pulver as Frank’s devoted wife. Multiple roles were played by Curt Hansen, Davis Gaines, Michael Beresse, P.J. Griffith, Deirdrie Henry, Brad Anderson, David St. Louis and Charlotte D’Amboise.

Does a story about injustice, prejudice and anti-Semitism hold a message today? That’s for each member of the audience to decide.