Bravo, Cygnet Theatre! Their largest production to date easily ranks among their finest. Cygnet’s doing such a magnificent job with Parade, it’s hard to believe the musical had an iffy track record.
Although it earned Tony Awards for book (Alfred Uhry) and score (Jason Robert Brown), Parade ran for only 84 performances. Some said the book was too bulky, others that Broadway is allergic to “serious” musicals. Both may have been accurate. A trimmed version now tours the “provinces” — even Atlanta — with great success. And I’d stack Cygnet’s up against any of them.
Confederate Memorial Day — April 26, 1913 — Atlanta, Georgia: 13-year-old Mary Phagan was found dead in the basement of the National Pencil Company. She’d been raped and strangled. When he paid her wages, superintendent Leo Frank may have been the last to see her alive. He became a magnet for suspicions: he was “nervous” when police interrogated him in the dead of night; and he was a Yankee, educated at Cornell University, and a Jew.
Of the witnesses who paraded through Frank’s trial, several young women alleged that he violated them. Inflamed with anti-Semitism, itching to rush to judgment, Atlanta condemned Frank long before the judge sentenced him to death by hanging.
Like the infamous Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s (a Jew, wrongly accused of treason, condemned to Devil’s Island), Leo Frank ignited an international debate. When the governor commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment in 1915, vigilantes snuck him out of prison. They drove to Marietta, Georgia, near Mary Phagan’s home, and lynched him. None wore masks or hoods. Some took photographs.
The tragedy prompted the return of the Ku Klux Klan and the birth of the Anti-Defamation League.
Two songs set the tone for Parade. Although it ended almost 50 years earlier, in 1913 many Southerners still referred to the Civil War as “the recent unpleasantness.” A full chorus belts out the prologue, “The Old Red Hills of Home.” They yearn for “purer,” antebellum times. The anthem recalls the eerie “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” in Cabaret.
Enter Leo Frank, alone: eyeglasses and frumpish-brown Yankee-style tweed suit (Shirley Pierson’s costumes are fingerprint-precise). When Leo sings a soliloquy, “How Can I Call This Home?” the excellent Brandon Joel Maier performs with his body and his strong, often pleading voice. Ticks and restless hands establish Leo’s “nervousness” long before the police arrive. Maier’s every move sets him apart from his surroundings.
From afar, Parade sounds like yet another “injustice of the month” musical. Uhry, who wrote Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night of Ballyhoo, re-creates the horror but also transforms his subject. In the midst of mass hysteria, Leo and wife Lucille fall in love, maybe for the first time. They commemorate their bond in a knockout duet, “All the Wasted Time.”
Played by Sandy Campbell, at first Lucille just wants to assimilate. She’s so sheepish and afraid, she may not attend the trial. Then Campbell does an amazing thing: almost imperceptibly Lucille expands and deepens and takes charge. She sings “You Don’t Know This Man” and “Do It Alone” with such conviction it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.
Beautifully directed by Sean Murray, with smart, humorous choreography by David Brannen, and Billy Thompson’s eight-piece orchestra, Cygnet’s Parade is almost a contradiction in terms: an ensemble show where everyone stands out.
Bryan Bargarin roars for justice in “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’.” Bargarin also plays Jim Conley — whose lawyer swore was the real murderer. Geno Carr rages as Tom Watson, publisher of the Jeffersonian (who wrote that the “jewsmedia” manipulated the Frank Affair). As various young men, Jacob Caltrider’s angry vocals weave through the story like a leitmotif.
Two of the most dramatic scenes begin as anything but. One’s a gala. Governor John Slaton and Atlanta’s finest, dressed to the nines, dance the one-step with mile-wide smiles. Lucille Frank enters, interrupts the “pretty music,” and gives the governor life-changing news.
Shortly after he commuted Frank’s sentence, angry mobs and death threats forced the governor and his wife to flee from Georgia. As Slaton, Rick D. Meads fractures the governor’s slick surface with the anguish of a Pilate.
The second scene begins like an older version of Tom Sawyer and Huck. Judge Roan and Hugh Dorsey — Steve Gunderson and David Kirk Grant, both first-rate — loll by a pond with the sun on their backs. As they fish with red poles, they sing of the “old times” and “the old fight.” The judge craftily forecasts Dorsey’s political future: the rabid “lynch-law” advocate will be the next governor of Georgia — and will avenge “the old blood that won’t dry.” ■
Parade, book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics, Jason Robert Brown
Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town
Directed by Sean Murray; cast: Bryan Barbarin, Jacob Caltrider, Kathleen Calvin, Sandy Campbell, Geno Carr, Gigi Coddington, Briona Daugherty, David Kirk Grant, Steve Gunderson, Dylan Hoffinger, Samantha Littleford, Brandon Joel Maier, Rick D. Meads, Amy Perkins, Tom Stephenson, Katie Whalley; scenic design, Sean Fanning; costumes, Shirley Pierson; lighting, Chris Rynne; sound, Ross Goldman; choreographer, David Brannen; musical director, Billy Thompson
Playing through April 29; Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-337-1525