Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: NOVEMBER 13, 2009
It’s one of the uglier pages in the American history book. Atlanta, 1913. A 13 year old girl, a worker in a pencil factory, is found dead in the plant basement, raped and murdered. The superintendent, a Yankee and a Jew, is accused, tried, found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. The evidence is flimsy at best, contrived and coerced by an ambitious, unscrupulous prosecuting attorney, in cahoots with a crooked, self-serving judge.
After Leo Frank spent two years in prison, his tireless, resolute wife succeeded in getting the governor to reconsider the case. Controversy swirled around the incident, and pressure came from every direction: from Northeast liberals, the nationwide Jewish community, even from Thomas Edison. At last, the governor commuted the sentence. But a murderous, anti-Semitic mob, distrustful of outsiders and hungry for retribution, would not be appeased.
Doesn’t seem like fodder for a musical, but “Parade” is a gut-wrenching theatrical experience, undoubtedly worth a trip to L.A., where the rarely produced 1998 show is getting an outstanding production, in the newly renovated Mark Taper Forum.
The musical has an impressive pedigree. The book writer is Alfred Uhry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, author of “Driving Miss Daisy,” who grew up Jewish in Atlanta. The co-conceiver was legendary director Harold Prince, and the moving, unconventional score was composed by the highly regarded Jason Robert Brown. The original, Lincoln Center production nabbed 8 Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical.
The 2007 London revival was even better received, and that’s the production that was brought to L.A., with many high-profile American actors inserted into the terrific cast. The show hasn’t been produced often enough, and it definitely should make a trip to San Diego — soon.
Both past and present haunt the proceedings: the ghosts of Civil War soldiers and a demure Southern belle waiting patiently at home remind us of another time of intolerance. And the Bible-thumping preacher who revs up the mob is reminiscent of the anti-gay and anti-immigrant church-folk of today.
Emmy-nominated TR Knight, who’s Charlie Lawrence on “Grey’s Anatomy,” is wonderful as the smart, smug, aloof and arrogant Leo Frank, and as his indefatigable wife, Lara Pulver, the only holdover from the London production, brings her marvelous voice and centered presence to the mix. David St. Louis gives a knockout performance in three seminal roles.
The sepia-toned look is beautiful, the music is stirring and unpredictable, the voices are excellent, and the orchestra sounds bigger and more robust than its nine-member size would suggest.
By any account, this is potent, heartrending theater, made more compelling because it’s based in fact. The creators did a spectacular job of bringing a troubling, unsettling story to the stage. You should certainly see if it you can.
“Parade ” runs through November 15 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
©2009 PAT LAUNER