A young girl is found dead in the factory where she worked. There are three suspects for the brutal murder: the black night watchman, the black janitor and the Jewish factory superintendent. The town seethes with hatred and prejudice, looking for a scapegoat, demanding “justice.” Blacks and whites are polarized; Jews are demonized. A case is manufactured against the Jew, a Yankee; a witness is offered a plea bargain to lie under oath.
Corrupt politicians seize on this opportunity to win votes. The media fans the flames of bigotry and sells papers with lurid journalism. A mob riots, taking the law into its own hands. An innocent Jewish man is lynched, leaving his loving wife a young widow.
Was this ripped from the pages of yesterday’s newspaper? Did it happen in Florida? Or was it Missouri? No, this happened in Atlanta in 1913 at the same time as the infamous Mendel Beilis blood libel trial in Czarist Russia.
“Parade” and the story it tells is a powerful work of musical theater based on the true story of an American Jew, Leo Frank, unjustly accused of murder. Set in the South of 1913, it spins a tale of anti-Semitism and violence. This is not the fluff and froth people often expect of musical theater today. Rather, it is serious, thought-provoking drama enhanced with song and dance. Cross “To Kill a Mockingbird” with “Ragtime” and you can approximate the feel. Written by Alfred Uhry, “Parade” is an engrossing and meaningful theatrical experience performed at a professional level: terrific story, acting, singing and dancing. It should not be missed.
Heading the cast are four Actor’s Equity members supported by experienced local actors and young talent from Carnegie Mellon University and Point Park College. Jesse Manocherian is outstanding as Leo Frank. His transition from nebbishy pencil pusher to the devil (as the witnesses portray him in “The Factory Girls/Come up to my office”) is a tour de force. Justin Lonesome as the lying witness struts his stuff with panache and a stirring voice.
Sean Lenhart as the prosecutor, Mathew J. Rush as the minister who evokes Christian piety against “the Jew” and Joe Jackson as the governor whose conscience drives him to commute Frank’s sentence all give notable performances. Daina Michelle Griffith, who plays Frank’s wife, was recognized as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Performer of the Year for 2013. Many of the actors play more than one role.
Jason Robert Brown’s score won a Tony Award when the play first opened. Since then, it has been revised and improved. With close to 30 musical numbers, the dancing and singing alone are worth the price of admission. The set, a simple bare stage with a moving staircase and a second level above, allows the audience to use their imagination. The six-piece band punctuates the action at significant moments as well as accompanies the singing and dancing.
Manocherian feels that Frank personifies the Jewish feeling of being an outsider. Frank “has a different way of communicating; he speaks in a different language” than the Southern non-Jews, says the actor. Manocherian points out that the different communities portrayed in the play — Southern gentiles, Jews, African-Americans — each have their own music. He sees Leo’s journey as “looking for his personal song.”
Though some have described “Parade” as a sad story, Manocherian emphasizes that the task of playwrights and of theater is to bring something new and important to theater-goers’ experiences. This play does just that.
This is the fourth musical produced by the local group Front Porch Theatricals. Co-producer Leon S. Zionts describes the company’s mission as “to tackle provocative and meaningful topics.” Zionts sees “Parade” as “educational, inspirational and transformative.” He notes that it is “not about the South or the Southerners being the bad guys. … The scourge of anti-Semitism is the same today as it was then. We haven’t learned to like and get along with each other.”
He also points out that “Parade” is a love story, and the story of a woman who grew as an individual and subsequently devoted her life to exonerating her husband’s name. On the seeming incongruity of blending tragedy with music, he remarks that “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera” are also tragic tales.
“People break into song when there is no other way,” says Zionts, “no better way to express their emotions.”
Directed by Pittsburgh native Benjamin Shaw with choreography and musical staging by Zeva Barzell and music direction by Deana Muro, “Parade” is being performed through Aug. 31 at the New Hazlett Theater
Simone Shapiro is a local freelance writer.