Review | Ben Platt takes the lead in a too-stately ‘Parade’ on Broadway


NEW YORK — The state of Georgia does not come off well in “Parade,” a musical with a big, beautiful sound and a book as somberly earnest as a graveside service. A history of egregious intolerance is knitted into this true-to-life account of the persecution of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn Jew in the Atlanta of 1913 who is railroaded all the way to a hangman’s rope for the murder of a White Christian girl.

Ben Platt, catapulted to stardom in “Dear Evan Hansen,” plays Frank with an air of insouciant coldness, an affect that lends credence to the musical’s suggestion that he was not the most sympathetic victim of injustice. Platt’s splendid counterpart in this well-put-together revival, which had its official Broadway opening Thursday night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, is Micaela Diamond, who plays Frank’s wife, Lucille. It is a lovely, gorgeously sung performance, sanctified by the suffering it embodies, of a woman who fought tirelessly for a husband who did not know how to love her back.

Diamond and Platt provide the stirring emotional spine for a 1998 musical that sorely needs them. Much of the rest of “Parade” unravels the ghastly corruption and bigotry of a time and place in which someone who was “other” — read: Black or Jewish — was in deep trouble when the establishment went looking for a scapegoat. Jason Robert Brown composes a stirringly lush, operatic score of intense marches and plaintive ballads for this horrific story, which is packed with pathos but not much drama.

As conveyed by Alfred Uhry’s book, the dreadful horror of Frank’s fate — a vicious lynch mob overrules the governor’s decision to commute Frank’s death sentence — freights “Parade” with a wearying inevitability. You sit for long stretches of the musical with a pit in your stomach, as antisemitic editors and race-baiting prosecutors mount a campaign against Frank. We know at every turn exactly where this tale is headed.

Director Michael Arden and set designer Dane Laffrey admirably conjure a Georgia of wild contradiction, of gentility and prejudice, of religious faith and mendacious immorality. Actors waiting to go on sit like reverent church parishioners in rows of pews facing a central wooden platform decked out in patriotic bunting. We’re invited to think of Georgia as continuing to be proud of — and humiliated by — its Civil War past, as highlighted in the warm hymns Brown writes for the ensemble of everyday Southern folk. They include a grizzled veteran played by Howard McGillin, still wearing his Confederate Army grays.

The counterpoints are the various scenes on that raised platform: the Franks at home, Leo in his jail cell, the crude gallows from which he’ll be unceremoniously hanged. Frank’s arrest and kangaroo court trial occupy much of the musical’s two and a half hours; note is taken in passing of a campaign by a small army of outsiders — Thomas Edison and Henry Ford among them — to win Frank’s release.

But opportunities to enlarge upon the tragedy, to infuse the musical with some flashes of real personality, are largely missed. The show’s best moment is a hallucinatory number for Frank and the girls from the pencil factory he manages, who admit later to making up claims he sexually harassed them. Interrupting his trial, the jazzy “Come Up to My Office” imagines Frank wholly out-of-character as a suave roué. Platt does marvelously with the song, as Frank’s abrasiveness melts away and he dances with the roguish confidence of a practiced seducer. The sequence’s bitter irony offers a short but welcome detour in the musical’s solemn progress.

Like the critically lauded “Into the Woods” that moved to Broadway last year and is now on tour, this “Parade” was birthed by the Encores! musicals-in-concert series at off-Broadway’s City Center. It does not have the skeletal look of a concert; the orchestra, for instance, is not on the stage, normally a hallmark of the format, and the set and Sven Ortel’s period projections convey a richer visual aesthetic. One directorial flourish comes across as too melodramatic: The girl Frank has been accused of killing, angelic Mary Phagan (Erin Rose Doyle), from time to time floats down from heaven on a swing.

It’s Lucille Frank and her compounding travails that allow us to see beyond some of “Parade’s” dioramic limitations. Steadfast Lucille must silently forgive her difficult, distant husband for his cool treatment of her, at the same time that she must launch a vocal public defense of him. That the effort is quixotic makes it all the more touching. Diamond’s performance is indeed a gemlike asset, in a stately show that’s over-paved with good intentions.

Parade, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, book by Alfred Uhry. Directed by Michael Arden. Music direction, Tom Murray; choreography, Lauren Yalango-Grant and Christopher Cree Grant; set, Dane Laffrey; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Heather Gilbert; sound, Jon Weston; projections, Sven Ortel. With Alex Joseph Grayson, Sean Allan Krill, Paul Alexander Nolan. About 2 1/2 hours. At Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York.

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