By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
How many regular patrons of Dallas Summer Musicals will wander innocently into Parade, the latest imported presentation, with images inside their heads of cheerfully tacky floats, colorful twirling parasols, and the painted round faces of children? This very new musical from playwright Alfred Uhry, director Harold Prince, and composer Jason Robert Brown makes its Southwest premiere at the Music Hall in Fair Park, but its title is generically syrupy enough in that sticky-sweet musical way to make you think the show is decades old and has already been made into a 1950s movie starring Audrey Hepburn or Natalie Wood. But, in fact, the stuff that makes the soles of your shoes stick to the Music Hall floor is blood: Uhry and Brown based their musical on the sad true tale of Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was lynched in 1913 Atlanta after he'd been falsely accused and convicted of the rape and murder of a 14-year-old employee at his factory. So, are we ready to kick up our heels and belt out a tune?
Actually, I'd argue that this kind of subject matter is far more appropriate--or, at least, more satisfying and conducive to real humanitarian impact--to be rendered as a musical than what normally receives the treatment. Comedy and romance are most effective when they dig up the right tiny details and piece them together into a mosaic that looks like me and the people in my life. They touch me in only the most intimate and understated and ironic contexts. Being in love might make me want to sing, but it's the very specific sights and sounds and tastes and touch of a lover that stir this desire. Musicals have it backward: They, too, often skip the texture of the particulars and head straight to the delirious rapture and torture. When they can't locate and relate the motivation, the results--all that self-absorbed caterwauling--reminds me most of all how foolish and fixated and annoying romance can make us.
Tragedy, I would further argue, can earn--in fact, deserves--a more communitarian and cooperative approach. I might not need or want the same things out of love that you do, but if a mob carries us or one of our loved ones off to be strung up from a tree, I'd warrant our responses--if not necessarily their expression--would be mighty similar. And that's where the singer steps in: Sorrow and fear are the great equalizers of the human condition, and the performer who skillfully vocalizes them embraces all of us in the same lyric. A show such as Parade also expresses moments of hope and affection and mercy, but in a crisis situation. There's the key, because in the confrontation with our mortality, when it all seems pretty futile, an exhilarating last stand is to open your mouth and let 'er rip.
Director Harold Prince is the primary New York interpreter for the indispensable Stephen Sondheim, so he's helped chart this territory since the beginning. Parade seems even less whimsical--if that's possible--and more overtly political and documentarian in tone than Sondheim. In a new-millennial America where racial slights are sometimes protected zealously by those who've been slighted, Uhry and Brown's book and score reveal some ugly new wounds--chiefly, the fact that historical evidence reveals that the killer-rapist was, most likely, a black man who fingered the Jewish fellow lynched by the Atlanta mob.
In the exultant tune "A Rumblin' and a Rollin'," the probable killer Jim Conley (Keith Byron Kirk) dances with other black men on a chain gang, delighted that for once, a paleface will take the rap. Leo Frank (David Pittu) is a rather cold man who has two other strikes against him in pre-WWI South--he's Jewish and a native New Yorker--but the governor of Georgia (Rick Hilsabreck) is convinced to spare him from death by Leo's tireless wife Lucille (Andrea Burns), who can document how corrupted her husband's trial was. "Hail the resurrection of the South's least sacred son!" Leo calls out in triumph, but we know it's a short-lived reprieve: Designer Riccardo Hernandez's gigantic oak looms silently over the proceedings, ready to pounce.
This touring production of Parade is watertight, eloquent, and sometimes harrowing, but it's always expert at translating unpleasant, intertwined emotions and unsympathetic characters into touching musical expression. It comes closer than Sondheim ever has to successfully interweaving elements of Greek tragedy and opera. The Greek influence seems especially forceful in the centerpiece trial sequence, in which prejudiced jury members combine with unscrupulous lawyers and perjuring witnesses in a chorus of condemnation against Leo Frank. When Frank attempts to defend himself, voice trembling, with "It's Hard to Speak My Heart," we see with crushing clarity that a commonplace weakness--the inability to express one's feelings--has been transformed into a tragic flaw.
The brilliant arts pundits at The New York Times were profoundly perplexed about why the national ratings for this year's Tony Awards TV broadcast were not only low (that's typical), but among the lowest in the show's history. Talk about confusing your fishbowl for the Atlantic Ocean. Since the mediocre stage critics for the Old Gray Lady act as shepherds for the New York flock, single-handedly herding them toward or away from multimillion-dollar shows with one review, they can't understand why the rest of America doesn't scurry when they snap. They don't get why the Tonys are unable to pull in a humongous viewership like the Academy Awards. I don't get why they don't get this. After all, the Oscars exist to be made fun of with a group of friends and to root for the occasional deserving winner like Hilary Swank; there's no satisfaction in ripping up some actor you've never heard of starring in a play you haven't seen, even if they're underpaid and underexposed in ultra-glamorous New York.