Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s “Parade” was 1998’s quick-closing Tony winner, widely dismissed as coldly overproduced. Stripped down and stark at the hands of helmer-choreographer Rob Ashford for London’s Donmar Warehouse two years ago, it was revealed as a work of extraordinary depth and thematic resonance. Now remounted at the Taper with a dream cast, Ashford’s “Parade” appears to be, by any standard, Southern California’s production of the year.
Musical theater aficionados have long esteemed Brown’s prodigious score, here exquisitely played and sung by a company fully in sync with turn-of-the-century rhythm and melody. But the emotionality comes through as never before in the context of Ashford’s economical, human-centric staging.
Wooden furniture is brought on and off; that’s it for spectacle. Effects are all achieved through a carefully chosen head turn or a lighting instrument’s iris-in to black. Though the 1914 railroading and lynching of factory manager Leo Frank (T.R. Knight) for the murder of little Mary Phagan (Rose Sezniak) is grim musical fodder, Ashford’s approach exhilarates with the power of pure theater.
As a courtroom thriller, “Parade” offers more excitement than a dozen “Law and Order’s.” The prickly, unsympathetic defendant is at the mercy of relentless D.A. Dorsey (a superb Christian Hoff), his spellbinding gestures misdirecting attention from a parade of dubious circumstantial evidence.
Outrage is replaced by anticipation when a principled governor (Michael Berresse, excellent) reopens the case, and recanting witnesses raise hopes of justice, though we’re fully aware of Leo’s fate. (Writers and helmer are clever enough to leave just a hair of tantalizing doubt about his involvement in little Mary’s still-unsolved homicide.)
While Leo’s fortunes fall and rise, his marriage transformation is scintillatingly dramatized. Lucille (Donmar holdover Lara Pulver) is a Southerner first and a Jew second, Leo a Brooklyn Jew and unwilling transplant (“These men belong in zoos,” he sings). His contempt is transferred to her, though he’ll do a 180 upon recognizing her tireless efforts in his behalf.
Ashford grants the romance ample room to breathe. Wholly embracing Leo’s unpleasant qualities, Knight nails each step in Leo’s realization of what Lucille means to him, with Pulver maintaining a proper balance between awareness of his shortcomings and her helpless love. This story arc’s believability permits “Parade” a triumphant note notwithstanding its melancholy denouement.
The legal and domestic dramas play out with plangent clarity within Neil Austin’s light plot which, for the range of its effects with relatively few instruments, should be studied by pros and academics for years to come. His sculpting of Christopher Oram’s solid brown but versatile space — a wide upper level offering numerous opportunities for simultaneous action and flashbacks — adds unforced Expressionistic touches reminiscent of the great prewar design pioneers (while adding a subtle hint of yesteryear).
This “Parade” may be most memorable for its handling of the racial and religious clashes at the Frank case’s heart. Oram’s trompe l’oeil overhead mural, alternately a peeling daguerrotype and color portrait of Southern aristocracy, embodies Uhry’s ambivalent view of his native South: absorbed by pride and honor, though founded on an evil legacy not fully erased.
Confederate sweetheart “Miss Lila” (Sezniak again) provides an omnipresent ghostly reminder of the ideals that died at Appomattox. That is, if they ever lived at all.
Ashford’s choreography serves this layer of the tale beautifully, from the parodic Jewish wedding dance greeting Leo’s conviction to the ominous foot-stompin’ yee-haw of a supposedly Christian congregation revving up to fashion a noose.
One can’t say enough about Knight and Pulver as mass hysteria’s victims, with special mention to its inciters: Charlotte D’Amboise’s grieving Ma Phelan, forgiving with a touch of acid; P.J. Griffith’s sly, feral preacher; and Curt Hansen as Mary’s sex- and vengeance-crazed boyfriend.
David St. Louis executes a breathtaking triple act as a terrified watchman; an urbane butler commenting (with the wonderful Deidrie Henry) on ruling class hypocrisy; and a prisoner defiantly hanging on to his damning testimony. As the chain gang conducts a chilling call-and-response, he slams rocks into a wheelbarrow as if every oppressor’s face were imprinted on it.