Murder, hatred, bigotry, and injustice, however prevalent in modern society, are not necessarily themes that make for an appealing musical. But in the case of Ford Theatre’s production of Parade, the dramatization of one of the darkest hours in the history of the American legal system makes for a powerful and handsomely executed piece of musical theatre.
Washington, D.C., and more specifically Ford’s Theatre, is an ideal location for a staging of Stephen Rayne’s newest production. Co-conceived by Broadway legend Harold Prince, Parade closed after a short run in New York in 1999 and is now making its D.C. debut against the backdrop of social change in the nation’s capitol. The mainstage production is the centerpiece for The Lincoln Legacy Project, a five-year effort by Ford’s Theatre Society and several human-rights organizations designed to encourage dialogue on the very issues Parade addresses on the stage.
The idea of “the others” in society and the marginalization of the oppressed are reoccurring theme in the play. Leo Frank, masterfully portrayed by Tony-Award nominee Euan Morton, acts, looks, and believes differently than his neighbors in early 20th-century Atlanta. His Judaism and Northern upbringing lead to his false conviction in the murder of a young girl and is ultimately lynched by an angry mob before the failed justice system can redeem him. Morton perfectly embodies the neurotic mannerisms of Leo Frank. Jenny Fellner is superb as Frank’s devoted wife, Lucille. Fellner’s clear and soaring vocals are perfect for Jason Robert Brown’s beautiful ballads. And while you won’t walk away humming the music, Brown’s score is reflective and captures the poignancy Frank’s ordeal. The choreography seemed like an afterthought for the majority of the production, although credit must be given to Karma Camp’s vision for “Come Up To My Office” scene where Morton displays his incredible range by shedding Frank’s neurotic person by transforming himself into the malevolent pedophile the townspeople think he is in the ironically upbeat and entertaining musical number.
While anti-semitism is on full display, playwright Alfred Uhry’s usage of racial slurs was enough to make some audience members squirm in their seats. Director Stephen Rayne did not shy away when manifesting the brutal mob mentality on stage and his direction of Leo Frank’s execution is chillingly accurate.
It has been almost 100 years since Leo Frank’s execution at the hands of an angry mob but his story remains relevant today. Will Gartshore, who takes on the task of playing the newspaper owner and politician Tom Watson, shared his insight as to why Parade may resonate more at the present moment than it did when he starred in the Broadway production in the late 1990’s. Gartshore explains that audiences may be drawn to the production because of “the economic hardships having once again given birth to a kind of hyper-emotional populism and powerful voices guiding the public’s rage towards sometimes unrelated political ends”.
As a lobbyist for the World Wildlife Fund by day, Gartshore is familiar with the polarization of American politics and recognizes some of the same attitudes of inequality found in Leo Frank’s era in today’s society. And while our nation has made progress in terms of racial equality, there are still segments of the population, such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, who still face unjust discrimination. “The community of Atlanta gets a sort of catharsis by channeling its collective rage about what are basically economic discontents towards someone they see as entirely foreign”, says Gartshore, “in the same way, we’ve all watched powerful figures in politics or the pundit classes try to create useful demons out of members of the LGBT community…Listen to politicos compare gay marriage to bestiality, boo an active duty soldier because he’s gay, or look at certain campaign fliers and you can see how hard it is for some to resist reaching back into that old bag of tricks and riling people up by ostracizing the ‘other'”.
With such heavy themes, one might think it nearly impossible to win an audience over but Parade does just that. It is full of energy and passion. Do not be fooled by its medium, this musical is not easy to watch but Parade achieves what so many contemporary musicals have failed to do, challenge the audience beyond their level of comfort to experience a satisfying theatrical experience.
WHEN: playing now through October 30, 2011
511 Tenth St, NW
Washington, DC 20004
TICKETS: Tickets range from $15 to $75 and may be purchased at www.fords.org or via Ticketmaster at 800-982-2787