Parade is the tale of an outrage, a chronicle of race-baiting and class hatred, and an indelible stain on the South I grew up in. So it’s not without caution that I say this: Never has the dramatization of an atrocity bored me so thoroughly.
Not because I’m deaf to the songwriting talents of Jason Robert Brown, whose The Last Five Years and Songs for a New World show both inspiration and craft. Not because this staging at Ford’s Theatre (a co-production with Theater J) isn’t handsome or gratifyingly sung; with a terrific Euan Morton in the principal role, and a hearty-voiced ensemble to frame him, it sounds mostly terrific, even in an acoustical environment that is ungrateful at best.
And certainly not because the story of Leo Frank isn’t tragic. Lynched in the aftermath of a shamefully skewed 1913 murder trial, he was the victim of politics and economics, a prosperous Yankee murdered in a South that was still staggering, and still seething, 50 years after the Civil War. He was a Jew, as well, and not incidentally: To the “chivalrous” men who took his life and desecrated his corpse, that made him nearly as subhuman as the race they’d once enslaved.
But Alfred Uhry’s book, though it’s reportedly been streamlined since the show’s initial 1998 incarnation, still takes a while to round out its portrait of Frank and his environs. Frank is an alienating presence, emotionally distant and short with his dutiful wife, and the show’s creators deserve credit for not sweetening him up; still, Parade is in no hurry to discover the man’s interior life. It takes its time, too, about circling back to the topics of regional and cultural and economic resentments that are barely hinted at in an opening number set 50 years before the main action, in a Georgia aflame with righteous antebellum wrath.
The score is ambitious without being particularly memorable, with the one exception of “You Don’t Know This Man,” an Act 1 ballad for Frank’s wife, whose awakening and advocacy open his eyes to her worth. (Indeed, Parade’s creators argue that their belated romance is the show’s counterweight story, though the balance still seems off.) The necessary uptempo numbers, including pastiches for newspapermen, domestics, and trial participants, come off as strained efforts at cynicism and gallows humor.
Karma Camp’s choreography offers not a single surprising gesture, and there’s an enervated quality to the show’s pacing, for which blame director Stephen Rayne. Tony Cisek’s set at least measures up, with soaring brick arches that suggest affluence, industrialism, and the fabled red clay of Georgia in equal measure.
Mostly, though, despite efforts institutional and individual, the show still seems like a sermon at heart. “Relive this horror,” it says, “and learn from it.” That’s admirable, in histories and in museums and in pulpits. In the theater, character and story do the work of historian and curator and priest. They’re what’s lacking here.