Parade is my kind of show — tough, unsentimental and clear-eyed in its condemnation of social injustice.
Playwright Alfred Uhry examined the cultural schizophrenia of being Jewish in the Deep South with a considerable amount of charm in his plays Driving Miss Daisy and Last Night of Ballyhoo. In those admirable works he managed to cast an acerbic eye on the assimilation of Jews with European roots into middle-class life in the land of Moon Pies and RC Cola while imbuing the material with humanistic warmth.
In Parade, the 1998 Broadway musical he wrote with composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown, he revisits the theme with a decidedly heavier touch. The history underpinning the show demands it. Uhry and Brown dramatize the case of Leo Frank, the nebbishy manager of a pencil factory in Atlanta, who in 1914 was accused of murdering one of his employees, 13-year-old Mary Phagan. After Phagan’s body was found at the factory, Frank (one of three suspects) was tried, convicted and sentenced to death — despite the absence of eye witnesses or any physical evidence connecting him to the crime.
Kudos to the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre for being the first professional theater in Kansas City to tackle this challenging material. Director Karen Paisley has assembled a huge non-Equity cast that includes seasoned professionals and people making their stage debuts. But the production is buoyed by strong central performances from Michael Dragen as Leo and Kimberly Horner as his wife, Lucille, as well as sharp supporting work from Vaughan Harrison, Sam Salary and Victoria Barbee.
The performance I caught Sunday afternoon suffered at times from an out-of-tune orchestra and an uneven sound mix that made Brown’s lyrics hard to understand. Some of the choreography that was just beyond the abilities of a few people onstage.
Uhry’s book meanders a bit in the second act. The show, like many Broadway musicals, feels bloated at times. And even though the narrative is rooted firmly in the factual record, the show inevitably trades in familiar Southern tropes from films and literature — seething resentment of the North, endemic prejudice against racial and religious minorities, corrupt lawyers, good ole boy politics, hot-house courtrooms and the ever-present threat of lynching by crazed, racist, anti-Semitic rednecks. That’s not to say people like that didn’t exist (they evidently still do in dispiriting numbers), but the writers struggle to cast them in a fresh light.
Brown and Uhry, each of whom won a Tony Award for his work on this piece, depict a layered society that includes three distinct groups: the Anglo-Saxon majority and power elite, Jewish businessmen and African-Americans descended from slaves. Anyone familiar with Leo Frank’s story knows how it ends — with him dangling at the end of a rope even as his case was under appeal. The writers pull no punches as they follow the narrative to its inevitably bleak conclusion.
But Uhry and Brown also find a way to reflect something positive about the human spirit. Leo’s character morphs from a man who is in absolute control of his life and business to a humbled figure who must accept that he controls nothing. Leo isn’t a particularly sympathetic character in the early going, but Dragen brings integrity to the performance.
As Lucille, Horner follows a more difficult path as we watch a devoted wife — who is Jewish and a native of Georgia — rise admirably to the defense of her husband come to a bitter acceptance of their fate. Horner gives us a nuanced performance and grows in stature as the show continues.
Brown’s score taps into various strains of Americana, often employing full-bodied choral harmonies that reflect gospel and blues traditions. Much of the music is wonderful, despite the under-rehearsed orchestra. Harrison, who possesses a phenomenal voice, plays Jim Conley, an African-American worker who is essentially blackmailed by the local prosecutor into a painting Frank in a bad light in court. He has two show-stopping numbers — “That’s What He Said” in Act I and later “Blues: Let the Rain Fall,” a number drawn from prison work songs.
Sam Salary plays another African-American worker and a suspect in the killing but returns in Act II as he and Victoria Barbee, as house servants in the Governor’s Mansion, privately comment on the outpouring of sympathy for Frank from the northern newspapers, the same papers that remain silent as black people in the south are murdered on a regular basis. Salary and Barbee are terrific singers.
Leah Swank-Miller, who doubles as Mary Phagan’s mother and the governor’s wife, is customarily impressive. And John Cleary, as the dishonest prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, handles the politically astute character with subtlety.
There’s much to praise and carp about in this show but the bottom line is undeniable: Parade packs a wallop.
Parade runs through June 26 at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. Call 816-569-3226 or go to www.metkc.org.
Above: Michael Dragen plays Leo Frank in the MET’s production of Parade. Photo by Bob Paisley.