There’s no director more exciting than Michael Arden working in musical theatre today. With his powerful revival of Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s Parade at New York City Center, Arden doesn’t just cement that position, he catapults himself several levels higher. He takes the trappings of a concert staging and drills down on the details, mining the text, the score, and the history to create something richer and more realized than anything I’ve ever seen at City Center. There’s consequence in Arden’s production. There are guts and sweat. To those (I among them) who have been begging for a revival of Parade, what a gift we’ve been given.
Parade is based on the true story of the murder of Mary Phagan at the National Pencil Company factory in Marietta, Georgia in 1913 and the trial, conviction, and appeals of Leo Frank, the factory superintendent, who is now widely believed to be innocent. Frank was the victim of rabid antisemitism and was kidnapped from his prison cell and lynched two years after Phagan’s murder when his sentence was commuted from the death penalty.
Arden takes a docudrama approach to telling Frank’s story. Scenic designer Dane Laffrey places a hulking platform center stage and surrounds it with chairs and pews on which the entire company can watch the events unfold. Real photos of the characters flash on the back wall when they take the stage. A chyron appears on the bottom of the platform showing the date each scene takes place. This grounding in reality is a constant reminder that what we’re seeing actually happened. Mary Phagan was a real girl. So was her mother. So was Leo Frank. It’s not so much a sensationalist “true crime” Netflix idea as an indictment of that kind of storytelling. In the current perilous state of our country, Arden wants us to see what happened then and draw the parallel to today.
But, crucially, he doesn’t let that overwhelm the material. He’s still staging a musical. Brown’s score is a masterpiece. Even aside from the big duets (“This Is Not Over Yet”, “All the Wasted Time”) that are staples of his songbook, Brown is perceptive in how he uses the songs to establish character and further action, often at the same time.
Listen to his songs for the prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (a slimy, electric Paul Alexander Nolan), particularly “Somethin’ Ain’t Right”. Dorsey will do anything to convince the people that unassuming Frank is somehow evil. The music both depicts the horror Dorsey is trying to spin up and is almost mocking him for how exaggerated he’s being. We’re not meant to believe Dorsey, but we’re meant to see how other people believe him. For a song that’s only a little over a minute long, Brown packs in so much dramatic information about a secondary character. And that’s just one example. The score is full of incisive commentary that somehow also happen to be no-skips jams.
Arden’s production has a massive cast and an equally massive orchestra, conducted by Brown himself. All the curtains have been lifted on City Center’s stage, but the cavernous space is always densely populated. The sound (designed by Scott Lehrer) is sumptuous and enveloping. There’s a real sense of ensemble. Arden often has people moving around the entire space, giving a sense of the full community in motion, living their lives in the shadow of Frank’s trial. The height of Laffrey’s platform lifts the bulk of the action off the stage floor and offers a more democratic view of the proceedings to the audience in City Center’s huge hall. The actors are closer to the mezzanine and the balcony while not losing any immediacy in the orchestra.
It’s truly remarkable what Arden and company have achieved in such a short amount of time in the rehearsal room. There is, however, a small issue that could have been finessed with a little more work. There is a breakneck pace to the first act that is appreciated for keeping the events moving, but that starts to become noticeable as the emotional moments don’t fully land. This becomes evident when, at Mary’s funeral, Gaten Matarazzo, as Frankie Epps, begins to sing, “It Don’t Make Sense”, a moving elegy to his friend. As the song climaxes, the writing and Matarazzo’s performance both beg for tears. (When I saw Rob Ashford’s production from the Donmar Warehouse in Los Angeles in 2009, I was a wreck from “Her smile was like a glass of lemonade” until the end.) In the mad dash to get there, we don’t have time to feel the feelings. Likewise, when Mary’s mother takes the stand at the trial, the gravitas of an opening line like, “My child will forgive me for raisin’ her poor,” doesn’t have the full heft it should. Part of the problem with Mrs. Phagan’s song, too, is that the key sounds higher than we’re used to and the low, sorrowful tone is missing. The second act has more space to settle and, by the time we get to “All the Wasted Time,” the full emotional breadth of the story can sweep in.
As Lucille Frank, Micaela Diamond is really listening to what the text says about her. Diamond leans into the “mousy” and “plain” side of Lucille at first, bringing out her repressed desires and her subservience to her husband as a good Southern woman. She keeps a tight lid on the power of her voice, doing a light mix on the higher sustained notes. It’s still gorgeous singing and she’s still conveying the yearning to break out. With Brown’s music, actors sometimes feel the need to really unleash the voice, to go all out on the money notes, which is fine in cabaret settings, but Diamond is doing something much more dramatic and intentional here. She is scaling the singing down to tell the story. When Lucille demands to have a voice in the second act, from “Do It Alone” until the end, she brings out a stronger, more powerful sound. Diamond’s performance is the true MVP of the production. She gets Lucille in totality.
As Leo, Ben Platt sings the role well, but there is an overriding sense of gentleness to his performance that doesn’t align with the character’s sensibility. Leo feels superior to everyone else in the town. In his first song, he sings, “These men belong in zoos. / It’s like they never joined civilization.” He has disdain for the uncouth people around him. He does not belong in the town and he’s not trying to assimilate. Leo is from Brooklyn and should feel like he’s from Brooklyn, as blunt and honest and, sometimes, loud as that should be. Platt’s Leo, conversely, is soft spoken and polite, as if he’s trying to be so small that no one will ever notice him.
At the trial, Brown creates a fantasy sequence where Leo becomes the predator he’s accused of being. In “Come Up to My Office”, we see Leo as he’s described by the factory girls who worked with Mary. He becomes tempting and demonic, offering the girls wine and fried chicken to come into his private chamber. For this sequence to work, we need to see Leo as the rest of the town sees him. We need to see a version of Leo that is capable of doing the things he’s accused of. But Platt doesn’t achieve that. He does some choreography (by Cree Grant) with the girls and retakes his seat at the table. It needs a more devilish edge.
It’s an incredible show, though, and Arden and his team must be applauded. The original production was directed and co-conceived by Harold Prince, and Arden’s version reminded me a little of Prince’s Sweeney Todd staging. There is an entire ecosystem functioning around the central events: the whole town of Marietta swarming and buzzing. The sheer scope of the endeavor is often breathtaking and it’s an absolute thrill to hear that music in such a rich and full rendering. I would not be surprised if this production gets another life and I’ll be going back repeatedly if it does.