Arden Theatre Company

Arden Theatre Company  director Terry Nolen is an expert at smoothing out the thorniest musicals, but even he can only streamline so much in the1998 Harold Prince docu-musical Parade. It dramatizes the infamous trial in 1913 Atlanta of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman, accused of killing a 13 year old girl factory worker.  Murder, sedition, anti-Semitism, rape, racism, pedophilia, and lynch mobs are just some of its weighty themes.

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Alfred Uhry’s script juggles two dozen characters, ambitiously, to show the story more than tell, and equally impressive is Jason Robert Brown’s score, with non-showy styles of  styles in of ragtime, blues, country and traditional Americana. But the book-music dynamic is very heavy going in several of the scenes, and the pacing is jarring.  Adding to the freight, this being is a true crime murder mystery, begs for a certain rhythm that isn‘t there. Nolen and video designer Jorge Cousineau devise a visual framework of period film projections midstage, that distracts from the gluey structure.

Brown’s expositional lyric writing reaches great heights right out of the gate with the opening number, a bittersweet Civil Wartime ballad to ‘The Old Red Hills of Home‘ with the powerful voice Michael Philip O’Brien singing about his lost love at home.

Fast forward 50 years with Atlanta getting ready for the Civil War Memorial Day Parade to celebrate. Leo Frank, a pencil factory supervisor, grouses to his wife, Lucille, about southern customs and why anyone would want to commemorate losing a war. Frank is an unpopular figure around town, for starters he’s a Yankee and he pays 10 cents an hour for child labor.

Meanwhile, before the parade, teen lothario Frankie Epps is trying to get 13 year old Mary to go to the movies with him that night, but Mary puts off his advances and says  has to go to the factory, which Frank runs, to pick up her pay first. She never returns. The next day when her dead body is discovered in the factory. Frank is accused of the crime and thrown in jail, put before a court and summarily, with little defense,  convicted on circumstantial evidence and a string of paid off witnesses who lied about his actions on the day of the murder.

Frank languishes in jail condemned to die. But the already rocky marriage between Leo and Lucille, is strengthened through adversity. Jennie Eisenhower and Ben Dibble believably portray their complex relationship mostly through two exceptional duets, “This isn’t over Yet” as Lucille puts things in motion to give Frank hope that he will be exonerated. Later, when Lucille has a conjugal visit they sing “All that Time Wasting“ with its soaring pathos.

Not all of the numbers are as successful. The first act finale, is a sweaty courtroom scene with everyone’s testimony in songs that gets very clammy. Even Dibble couldn’t rescue “Come Up To My Office“ a fantasy sequence out of nowhere, in which he plays himself as if he were the man the prosecution is painting him out to be.  There are several suspects and even though Frank is being railroaded, he was the last known person to have seen Mary alive.

Uhrey makes several characters look suspicious- Derrick Cobey as the black cleaning supervisor Jim Conley, certainly plays it as a deceptive villain. He sings the torturous heavy handed number ’Blues: Feel the Rain Fail‘ is one of  the weakest numbers at an otherwise climatic point in the story. Cobey’s electric performance rescues it from coming off as a parody of a chain gang song.

Among the other standouts in this large cast with many of the actors playing multiple roles are many Arden favorite.  O’Brien sang three roles with distinction. Tony Lawton played the gentlemanly but slimy DA Tony Dorsey.  Lawton was in great voice in ‘The Glory‘ a duet with Dennis Holland who plays the even skeevier Judge Roan.

Sarah Glinko gives a subtle and witty performance as the nobody’s fool wife of the Georgia governor Staten, played by Scott Greer. Greer charms in the party scene dancing the fox-trot in the Sondheim-esque number ’Pretty Music.‘ Jeffrey Coon is the pumped up, self-parodying yellow journalist selling it to the back row in a razzy show number called ‘Real Big News.’ Robert Hager as Epps, gives a haunting vocal performance as Mary’s enraged boyfriend who vows revenge against Frank.

Parade could easily loose 30 minutes from, but Nolen’s strong directorial and great singing by the whole cast makes it worth those run on scenes, and credit the solid accompaniment by music director Ryan Touhey and the musicians backstage.