‘Parade’ Review: Ben Platt Stuns in a Powerful Broadway Production of an Essential American Musical

Traveling from the relative calm of the Clinton era to more perilous, contemporary times of mobs, mendacity and political mayhem, the much-admired but short-lived musical “Parade” has now found its moment in a brilliant Broadway revival.

A decade after its Broadway bow in 1998 under the direction of Harold Prince, when the show received awards but not a lengthy run, a significant re-do directed by Rob Ashford at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2007 gave the challenging show and its dark subject matter a stronger structure and new life.

Last fall’s acclaimed gala presentation at New York City Center built on that work, offering a stark and searing passion play of a production, complete with broad strokes, moral lessons and harsh indictments. It also revealed the work as an essential American epic that resoundingly speaks to our times. Now on Broadway, it boldly fills in a vast national canvas, from its Civil War prologue to its modern-times coda.

There’s a 26-member cast of glorious voices and a fulsome orchestra playing Jason Robert Brown’s ambitious and always engaging music. (He was in his 20s when it was written.) The score includes a wide embrace of American music: Southern laments, soaring love ballads, charm songs and anthems of hope, all while tapping into the musical genres of gospel, blues, jazz and yes, even Broadway.

But this time out, will audiences take to a disturbing but captivating musical that deals with racism, antisemitism and injustice — and that ends in a lynching?

Context and theatrical artistry are everything, and here Brown, book writer Alfred Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Last Night at Ballyhoo”) and director Michael Arden (“Spring Awakening,” “Once on This Island”) reshape this tragic story and elevate it with significance and stagecraft.

Despite the unsettling subject matter there are also moments of charm, wit and even a razzmatazz number to act as a respite from the weight of grief, outrage and the ghosts of history.

There’s also the star power of Ben Platt (“Dear Evan Hanson”) in a stunning performance as Leo Frank, a transplanted Brooklyn Jew who is falsely accused, tried and convicted of murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan (Erin Rose Doyle), an employee of the Atlanta pencil factory where Frank is superintendent.

Frank is not an easily sympathetic character, but the eminently likable Platt commits to the character’s formality, imperiousness and insensitivity, while revealing just a bit of wry humor (“How Can I Call This Home”). He also scores with a show-stopping fantasy number (“Come Up to My Office”). But it’s the vivid portrayal of his character’s emotional transformation in the second act that’s most moving, making him a complex man far more than a simple symbol.

As Frank’s neglected Southern Jewish belle wife Lucille, a terrific Micaela Diamond (“The Cher Show”) also has a compelling arc that grows in power (if not fierceness in “You Don’t Know Him”). The couple’s deepening relationship gives heart to a show whose narrative is relentlessly chilly. Their second act duets — “This Is Not Over Yet” and “All the Wasted Time” — make the production soar and ground it in humans terms.

More than a dozen featured players each have their moments in the spotlight, too, making it an embarrassment of riches to savor. Jake Pedersen as Mary’s young suitor is delightful in “The Picture Show” and devastating with “It Don’t Make Sense”; Jay Armstrong Johnson is all oily pizazz in “Real Big News”; and Courtnee Carter and Douglas Lyons give a stinging fact-check perspective in “A Rumbling’ and a Rollin’.” Sean Allan Krill shows smooth command and decency as the questioning Georgia governor, and he aptly sings “Pretty Music”; Howard McGillin as the presiding judge edges toward madness in “The Glory”;  and Alex Joseph Grayson lays it all on the line in “Feel the Rain Fall.”

Key to this retelling is the presentational style of the show, which is common for City Center’s Encores! shows and here becomes an asset as it sharpens the focus and always keeps the musical numbers front and center, enhanced by Heather Gilbert’s lighting, Susan Hilferty’s period costumes and Jon Weston’s sound design.

The tri-level raised stage by Dane Laffrey also keeps it simple, effectively standing in for a wide variety of locales: factory offices, court room, ballroom, gravesites, prison cell and ultimately gallows. Co-choreographers Lauren Yalango-Grant and Christopher Cree Grant make the sweep of history move with grace and flair.

Sven Ortel’s projections of vintage photographs of the actual characters, settings and headlines are a constant reminder of the real world and its actual history. This theatrically thrilling revival of “Parade” teaches lessons that still need to be learned from a wicked past that haunts us still.

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