The year is 1914, and the priggish Leo Frank is none too happy to find himself stuck in Atlanta, Georgia. The bespectacled, college-educated Jewish manufacturer from Brooklyn has ventured to the underside of the Mason-Dixon line to run his father-in-law's pencil plant. But he's a fish out of water and likes neither the heat nor the Southern drawls of this redneck world. Even his lovely wife, Lucille, is an enigma; he looks at her all done up in summery lace for the Memorial Day parade and says, "For the life of me, I can't understand how they made you people Jewish and Southern at the same time." By the end of the day, Frank will learn just how insidiously strange the South can be when he's railroaded for a crime he didn't commit. Lynched in 1915 for the murder of a 13-year-old girl, Leo Frank's true tale of terrible injustice at the hands of Southern bigots provides the basis for Alfred Uhry's musical Parade.
The horrifying injustices of the Old South are familiar territory for this playwright best know for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Driving Miss Daisy. And Parade, with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, stomps over this well-trodden landscape with a lot of good intention. But this musical, populated with one-dimensional, hey-y'all Southerners who drink hip flasks full of hooch and thump big black Bibles while shouting "Jesus was not a Jew," comes off as too pedantic to fully capture the rich and tragic implications of this dark moment in American history.
Part of the difficulty is with the character of Leo Frank. Sung beautifully by Ilich Guardiola, the protagonist is never allowed to become more than a mouthpiece for Uhry's lesson. Frank is forever the decent, honest man his wife claims he is, and little more. His only eccentricity is his rather humorless devotion to his work. Otherwise, he spends most of the play clinging to his jail cell bars, calling out his innocence to anyone who might listen, including his third-rate, booze-swilling Southern lawyer. Frank's allowed only one moment to shine: In the trial scene, three girls sing some trumped-up testimony, painting a tawdry picture of Frank as a slimeball boss who cops feels off his young workers. Here, Guardiola oozes with oily charm, but the rest of the time his character is stuck in jail, a martyr to Uhry's cause.
The Masquerade Theatre, 1537 North Shepherd
Through April 13; 713-861-7045. $20-$25
Uhry's images of the South are as hackneyed as his characters. Songs such as "The Dream of Atlanta" and "The Old Red Hills of Home" are filled with sweeping vocal crescendos and military drum rolls, establishing the idea of a civilization lost to war and bad politics. As Uhry imagines it, every white man was either a fool, a drunk or a Bible thumper. Even the blacks come off as cartoons until late in the play when three servants sing "A Rumblin' and a Rollin'," about their secret thrill at seeing a white man get run over by the same injustice they've experienced for generations. As sung by Afton Battle, De Undre C. James and Omari Tau Williams, this song is the most riveting of the production.
Parade's second act gains focus as Frank's young wife becomes his advocate. The real star of this play is the glowing Kaytha Coker as Lucille. Vocally, Coker is suited perfectly for the role. But even better, she finds an exquisitely tender depth in this story of a woman who must rise up out of her sleepy, well-off existence in which she is little more than a pretty ornament in an iron-fisted patriarchy. Slowly, Lucille marshals the wherewithal to become her husband's most powerful voice. Using the press, she gains the attention of the governor, almost winning her husband's freedom. Had Uhry concentrated on her story, his musical would have found its heart.
Director Phillip Duggins has put together an impressive cast. As trite as some of the music is, this group sings with such warmth and richness that the tiny theater all but shivers with the power of sound. The four-piece band adds depth, and Duggins makes decent use of the small playing area, especially the balcony. In fact, the performers bring so much energy and life to this production that they often transcend Uhry's movie-of-the-week-style morality tale.
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