Parade, which opened Thursday night at the Bartell Theatre, is a musical about the most unlikely of subjects: the wrongful conviction and lynching of a Jewish man in Georgia in 1915. Accused of killing a 13-year-old girl who worked in the factory he ran, Leo Frank was dragged from jail and murdered by a mob.
No, this isn't Annie, but it's just the kind of show that Music Theatre of Madison was formed to do. The company, which recently celebrated its sixth anniversary, seeks out lesser-known musicals that take on complex themes. While Parade has its flaws, it's also an examination of a thoroughly fascinating historical incident of which I was previously unaware -- and I don't think I'm alone in that.
What's more, the Frank lynching and the outrage it sparked helped spur the creation of the Anti-Defamation League, but also a revival of the Klan.
While the subject matter is dark, the songs don't wallow in gloom. The upbeat second number, "The Dream of Atlanta," performed by the whole ensemble, shows the city as a pretty swell place to be, at least for those in the majority.
For those who are outsiders, though, the community can be difficult. As a college-educated, Jewish northerner, Leo Frank sings of his alienation in "How Can I Call This Home?"
With a cast of nearly thirty and an eight-piece orchestra tucked behind a scrim onstage, Parade, directed by company founder Meghan Randolph, is an ambitious undertaking.
As might be expected with a cast of this size, some are stronger singers than others. Fortunately, highly capable performers play the lead roles of Leo and his wife, Lucille. Gregory Reed bears an uncanny resemblance to his real-life counterpart, and has a fine voice to boot. While generally playing Leo as cold and aloof -- how others saw him -- in "Come Up to My Office," Reed shows a more fluid side. In that song, we see Leo as the lecherous boss he was made out to be by fabricated testimony.
Sierra Naomi, as Lucille, has perhaps the best voice in the show, and the Franks' marriage is integral to the story. While false accusations fly in the streets of Atlanta and the courtroom, Lucille remains steadfast ("You Don't Know This Man") and does everything in her power to help prove Leo's innocence ("This Is Not Over Yet").
While the real killer of young Mary Phagan has never been conclusively determined, some historians think it was factory janitor Jim Conley, played here by Jason Atkins. Atkins' singing is stronger in the show's second half, when he delivers one of the show's most powerful moments. "Blues/Feel the Rain Fall," a bluesy, gospel-inflected number, seems to hit the sweet spot of Atkins' vocal range, and he is mesmerizing to watch.
While the set design is minimal, it seems almost necessary as locations shift rapidly from scene to scene, in a town square, courtroom, ballroom, prison, and so on. Costumes by Randolph and Sharon White are even more critical, then, to convey the period setting and add color and life.
With a book by Alfred Uhry and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, Parade debuted on Broadway in 1998 and was revived in London in a revamped version in 2007; it is this reworked version that Music Theatre of Madison presents now.
In its best scenes, Parade balances both the very personal nightmare faced by the Franks with the larger context of bigotry defining these events. The story delves into rich themes with aftershocks still felt today, giving Parade an exceptional relevance for a musical.