The Broadway revival of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade reaches its summit in its silences. I don’t mean that as faint praise.
The anthemic, Tony-winning score soars, of course, in its telling of the unjust prosecution and subsequent lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish New Yorker convicted of murdering his teenage employee in 1913 Atlanta. The vocal prowess of the extraordinary cast is never in question. But director Michael Arden taps the greatest pathos in the production’s quietest moments.
Consider the heartbroken faces of Leo (Ben Platt) and his long-suffering wife, Lucille (Micaela Diamond), as he concludes his tender plea of innocence in the courtroom. Bathed in Heather Gilbert’s unforgivingly harsh lighting, they languish in the certainty that this truthful admonition will come to nothing.
Or watch how Mary Phagan (Erin Rose Doyle), the murder victim, levitates above Dane Laffrey’s set at a key moment in the second act. As the news breaks that Georgia’s governor has commuted Leo’s sentence from death by hanging to life imprisonment—a development greeted by the formation of a bloodthirsty mob—she remains still and ashen, looking stricken by the violence enacted in her name.
Arden communicates the shifts that characters undertake over the course of the musical with the most fine-grained detail. We see how Mary’s potential boyfriend Frankie Epps (the superb Jake Pederson) evolves from carefree adolescent to vengeful vigilante, ginned up by the rising tide of anti-Semitism that surrounds him—a chilling case study in radicalism. We see how the prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, played with casual malevolence by Paul Alexander Nolan, stokes the fires of prejudice for his own personal gain, aided by the proudly bigoted newspaper editor Tom Watson. As Watson, Manoel Felciano shows how shading a single word or suggestively raising an eyebrow can evoke multiple layers of subtext.
All of these minute elements combine to create a revival that fundamentally refocuses the musical’s lens for the better. When Parade debuted in 1998, it functioned primarily as a character study of two people whose lives were crushed by an unjust system, scenes from a flawed, but human marriage. Arden, instead, gives us a portrait of a community succumbing to its base urges, addicted to aggression and fear of the other. This comes through in his choice to have the ensemble remain onstage for the majority of the performance, acting as wordless witnesses to the nefarious scapegoating of Leo as a dangerous interloper. It brings the material into the twenty-first century in a painfully familiar way.
This maximalist interpretation takes nothing away from the fine work delivered by the leading actors. Free of any Evan Hansen affect, Platt offers a wrenching portrait of a man who can’t always get out of his own way—to quote his own description of himself, he embodies “a little man who’s scared and blind, / too lost to find the words he needs.” Diamond shows us the other side of the coin: a fierce, indomitable woman who will move mountains to clear her husband’s name. When they join together for the stirring love duet “All the Wasted Time” deep into the second act, you know for sure that their bond is sacred and secure.
Platt and Diamond are closer in age to the historical Leo and Lucille Frank than many of the actors who’ve previously played these roles. Their relative youth brings an additional painful layer to the story. Their hopefulness as Leo’s attempt for an appeal seems more ebullient, and their resignation over the hard breaks of their situation feels more forlorn. You never lose sight of them as a couple who had their whole lives ahead of them until one reckless accusation tore their future into a million pieces.
Like John Doyle’s revelatory production of The Color Purple or Deaf West’s brilliant reimagining of Spring Awakening (also directed by Arden), this Parade will join the ranks of revivals that permanently alter the perception of the material. It is essential viewing that shows its audience that society cannot outrun the sins of the past, no matter how hard we try.