Mark Taper Forum
It is often unlikely combinations that result in satisfying results. The risk of combining seemingly disparate elements heightens the satisfaction if successful, but disaster is always a tightrope walk away.
In the case of Parade we have the prospect of the true story of a Northern Jew accused in 1913 Georgia of murdering a young girl, and told as a musical. But in the able hands of the cast and production team, the experience is gratifying. The book was written by Alfred Uhry, who has earned his mettle with Pulitzer, Tony and Academy Awards. His first play (and eventual screenplay) Driving Miss Daisy revealed his nuanced handling of race relations.
The music and lyrics for Parade are provided by Jason Robert Brown, who has enjoyed a stellar rise in the ranks of young American musical composers. Rob Ashford pulls the elements together as director, with the additional input of the storied Harold Prince as ‘co-conceivor.’
At the Taper we are treated to the Donmar Warehouse production of Parade, which is another intriguing example of a European perspective informing a truly American experience. (Parade had an original incarnation in 1998, but the current revised production is from 2007).
T.R. Knight plays Leo Frank, the no-nonsense superintendent of a pencil factory. He brings his Cornell and Manhattan perspective to his transplanted life, wondering in his first solo “How Can I Call This Home?” The Jewish experience in the American South of the early 1900s is certainly an intriguing setting, and it plays an expanding role as the musical unfolds. The murder occurs, and both the audience and Frank are uncertain about the facts.
A preacher, a prosecutor and a governor each bring their biases to the action. After a gripping funeral scene (buttressed by the only non-original musical number, the vintage spiritual “There Is A Fountain”), we move into Frank’s trial. The evidence is overwhelming, and by the end of the first act Frank is wallowing in jail, destined to be hanged.
Of the myriad strong performances, the cast is blessed with the towering presence of David St. Louis. He plays several roles, but shines as the factory janitor who adds his accusatory evidence in the case against Frank. Louis’ booming voice and commanding stage presence leave the audience nearly breathless.
The stage set (by Christopher Oram) effectively works as a courtroom, a jail, the governor’s office and most cleverly as a riverside fishing hole.
When the governor refers Biblically to ‘another governor who sent a Jew to his death’ and determines not to follow the same fate, the faith and perseverance of Frank’s wife is made evident. Frank’s most satisfying character evolution is his realization that his unsung wife is his pillar of strength.
Parade is a marvelous production. Through November 15, 2009. For more information, visit www.centertheatregroup.org