Thursday, August 28, 2014

Parade (New Hazlett Theater, Pittsburgh, PA)

Parade (book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown) is a musical about the 1913 Leo Frank case, which culminates in his lynching in 1915. A lot of people find entertainments about abominations of justice that culminate in brutal murders by angry mobs of morons to be sort of oxymoronic, which explains, at least in part, the chilly reception Parade got when it opened on Broadway in 2000, and closed after 39 previews and only 84 regular performances (the collapse of its chief producer, Livent, during its run, probably didn't help boost sales, either). Sure, it's possible to have a musical that is a smash hit and also a total downer--Cabaret and West Side Story are proof--but Parade came off as just a little too clinical, a little too two-dimensional, to stir the emotions of its audiences.

While this may be a central flaw in the musical, it's also one that I find particularly understandable. Leo Frank, after all, was unfairly accused of a murder, given an outrageously sham trial, and wrongly sentenced to death, basically because he was Jewish and unpopular. When the sentence was finally commuted to life in prison instead of death by hanging, he was promptly lynched by several upstanding members of the Marietta, Georgia, community (including a former governor of Georgia, several sheriffs, a judge, the mayor, and a general assemblyman who later formed the town's first Boy Scout troop). At their most basic, the events are so dreadful, so grotesque, so completely Kafkaesque, that I can understand the hesitancy among the creative team to flesh out the characters too deeply. Encouraging your audience to bond with a character who was, in reality, so terrifyingly doomed is its own fucked-up kind of torture. I would be willing to bet that the creative team struggled mightily on this front.

Yet as it is written, Parade comes off as pretty bloodless, and a little too neat and tidy for the mess it depicts: While Leo clearly does not deserve what he is put through, he is drawn as an unlikable, disconnected, irritatingly caustic character. At least until the second act, his wife, Lucille, suffers in silent, still, Southern charm through a loveless marriage, the conviction and the trial. The citizens of Georgia love the South, lament the outcome of the Civil War, and openly hate outsiders; their lawmakers and politicians are crooked and opportunistic. Leo and Lucille learn to love one another during the ordeal, but there's not much depth to their emotional transformation, either. Then there's what I see as an even bigger frustration, which points to the history of the musical theater in this country, and to the history of this country in general: there are a few secondary black characters in Parade, and they, too, are all pretty thinly developed.

The erasure of black America in popular entertainment is hardly specific to Parade, of course, but its subject matter calls particular attention to it nonetheless, maybe even more so given this summer's political climate: There's something maddening about the fact that the only American musical to date about lynching in the South--a practice that, even by conservative estimates, took far, far more black lives than any other kinds of lives--focuses almost entirely on white people. This fact is, at the very least, acknowledged: the number "A Rumblin' and a Rollin," at the top of act two, is sung by seething black servants who point out that the Frank case brought more attention and national concern to the South than any other incident. The number, while appropriately angry and biting, nevertheless doesn't feel like enough. Maybe nothing about race in this country feels like enough these days. Again, that's not Parade's fault, so much as it's the whole history of entertainment in this country's fault.

Now, lest all my bitching about distant characters and racial inequality imply that I had a terrible night at the theater, rest assured that I did not. Way to bury the lede, I know, but Parade is, for all its problems, very much worth seeing, especially if it's performed well: it tells a fascinating, if terrible, American story, its memorable score is chock full of Americana (and plenty of nods to Eastern Europe), and its book is well-paced and engaging. The production at the New Hazlett Theater in Pittsburgh--which is, after all, home to Carnegie-Mellon University, Point Park University, and plenty of other talented people who just like living in Western Pennsylvania--was top-notch. Much theater in Pittsburgh is, and this fact makes me right proud.

Expertly directed by up-and-comer (and 'burgh native) Benjamin Shaw (who I suspect we'll be seeing more of), and performed by a uniformly strong cast, the Front Porch Theatricals production of Parade was engaging and attractive. Marred only by muddied sound, the show delivered, if not emotionally, then certainly intellectually. While I remained somewhat distanced from its characters, I nevertheless left the theater eager to learn more about the Leo Frank trial and its history--and to get my hands on Brown's beautiful, challenging score. Parade might not have punched me in the gut, but it sure did work its way into my head. If that's not the mark of well-executed show, I don't know what is.  

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