Review by Willard Manus

More opera than traditional Broadway musical, PARADE leans heavily on Jason Robert Brown's score to tell its story. His songs are far more important than Alfred Uhry's skimpy book (which unjustifiably won a Tony award back in 1998 when the show premiered at Lincoln Center).

Brown, a Harold Prince protege, also won a Tony for his contributions to PARADE--which are as impressive as they are numerous. Brown composed words and music for twenty-five numbers, almost all of which have the heft and passion of a Verdi or Puccini opera. Brown, who lives in LA and teaches at USC, is without doubt the fairhaired boy of the American musical (his other works include 13, Songs For a New World and The Trumpet of the Swan).

PARADE is based on the painfully true story of Leo Frank, who in 1913 was accused of having raped and murdered a teenaged worker, Mary Phagan, at a pencil factory in Atlanta. Frank, a Brooklyn-born Jew, had relocated to Georgia because of marriage: his wife Lucille (Lara Pulver) was a Jew whose family had survived in the racist
south by keeping a low, self-effacing profile. Feeling a fish out of water, Frank (admirably portrayed by T.R. Knight) grudgingly managed the pencil factory, a job he felt was beneath him as an Ivy League graduate. He also disliked not only Atlanta but the south itself for its bigotry and backwardness--and he couldn't fathom why the locals would want to celebrate Confederate Memorial Day: "Whoever heard of marching in a parade for a war you've lost?"

Phagan (Rose Sezniak) is killed on the day of the parade. Normally a black man would be charged with a heinous crime like that, but in this case a demagogue and future U.S. Senator named Tom Watson (P.J. Griffith) decided more political capital could be mined by putting the blame on a Jew. With the local Hearst newspaper shrieking for Frank's blood, a rigged trial took place, at which Jim Conley (David St. Louis), a black with a long criminal record, testified falsely that he had seen Frank abduct the girl.

Frank was found guilty and sentenced to death. The Jewish establishment (including the publisher of the New York Times) took up Frank's cause, joined by Georgia's Governor, John Slaton (Michael Berresse), who concluded that Frank was innocent and bravely commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment. This triggered the south's wrath: Slaton's political career was destroyed and a KKK-led mob lynched poor Leo Frank.

It's not a pretty story, but thanks to Brown, Uhry, Harold Prince (who co-conceived the project and first directed it in New York), and Rob Ashford (who re-directed it in London and now L.A.), PARADE unfolds with mounting power and poignancy. The tragedy of Leo Frank truly does have operatic stature. (Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 213-628-2772).