Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s musical Parade, based on the Leo Frank case, had only a brief Broadway run in 1998-99, but it won six Drama Desk Awards and two Tony Awards—for best book and best score. Book and score—those are pretty important elements of a musical, I’d say. But I missed it, and while I heard of other productions in the interim, I had never seen one. So I can’t compare the Secret Theatre Musicals’ new bare-bones production, directed by Taryn Turney, to some extravagantly staged version. Fortunately, with its excellent story, compelling music, and a crack cast, the show doesn’t need big-budget trappings. This is a superior evening of musical theater, no caveats required.
In 1913, Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager in Atlanta, was accused of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old girl who worked in the plant. Though much of the circumstantial evidence against him was questionable, the jury convicted Frank and sentenced him to death. The Governor, upon reviewing the evidence, had doubts, and commuted the sentence to life in prison, whereupon an angry mob fueled by anti-Semitism broke Frank out of prison and lynched him. The establishment of the Anti-Defamation League was a direct result; the case also illuminated racist attitudes in the South, as the other suspect, a black night watchman, was racially disparaged routinely throughout the case (including by Frank himself).
I’d wondered, this being my first time seeing a musical in this space, how it would come off in the stark just-inside-the-loading-dock Secret Theatre. You do have to listen closely, at times, to hear the unamplified lyrics over the small, well-rehearsed band. That’s an adjustment after seeing musicals in larger halls where the singers are always miked and thus don’t have to project. This show, among other things, proves that the art of projecting, while less encouraged of late, hasn’t been lost entirely; instead of being pushed back into your seat by the din, you just have to lean into the music and watch the actors sing.
And sing they can. Led by Keith Collins, who brings a pure tenor to the role of Leo Frank, and the sweet-voiced Alix Paige, who has a number of laser-lovely moments as his devoted wife Lucille, the big cast brings nearly every facet of the iconic story to life. The Franks’ home life isn’t all it could be—this Brooklyn boy is unhappy down South and takes his Southern-Jewish-blueblood wife for granted (“How Can I Call This Home?”). Innocent Mary Phagan (the winning Molly Garbe) and a young admirer (a golden-voiced Josh Davidson) evoke the life of poor but optimistic young people in a clever number called “The Picture Show.” Then everything, forgive the expression, goes South for Mary and for Leo and Lucille.
Southern pride, politics, behind-the-scenes machinations, trumped-up evidence, attitudes of and towards black servants at the time, and—not least—love and devotion are all smartly summarized in song. The trial scene that ends Act I showcases the director’s broad vision and technical skill; the dance scene at its finale is creepily effective (with choreography by Jessica McCuiston). Scenes change swiftly and smoothly, with just a few pieces of furniture and props representing homes, prison cells, courtroom, and more. Even Zachary Percevecz’s lighting design contributes to the action, a factor usually less significant in modestly outfitted spaces like this one, but crucial when a story so big and dramatic is being staged with no scenery.
Best of all, Music Director Jeremy Rafal makes the most of his group of talented singers and musicians. Jay Aubrey Jones and Michael Fisher as the black workers, Marc Cornes as a dogged reporter, Amara Haaksman as a bereft friend of Mary’s, and Nathan Brisby as a judge are just some of the cast members who have powerful moments along the way. Company stalwart Thom Brown III, seen most recently as the Citizen Grocer in The Knight of the Burning Pestle, makes Hugh Dorsey, the ambitious prosecutor, interestingly human, and Spencer Case looms rather satanically as the racist provocateur Tom Watson. But it seems almost unfair to single out some of the cast in this fine ensemble production.
See it for the story, compelling and important. (There’s an informative Leo Frank exhibit in the theater as well.) See it for the music, very accessible with modernistic touches, occasionally reminiscent of 1776; and for the book and lyrics, unusually literate for a modern full-length musical. And see it for the performances. It scores on all points. Parade runs through April 16 at the Secret Theatre, Long Island City, Queens, easily accessible by subway from Manhattan.