Most composers of Broadway musicals are not be found in a St. Paul orchestra pit on a Tuesday night conducting a hinterlands tour of their own work. But for Jason Robert Brown, Harold Prince and the rest of the Gotham creatives still very much involved in “Parade,” this road retread of the critically maligned tuner has the air of a personal quest for artistic vindication. The show is a decidedly dark one compared to most road fare, and flaws certainly remain. But there’s no disputing the high quality of Prince’s compelling, moving and surprisingly expansive touring production. It is far superior to the original Lincoln Center Theater effort.
Both the material and Prince’s direction of it work better in a traditional proscenium setting. The story seems much less bombastic when it’s not presented right in an audience’s face. Complex numbers like “The Factory Girls/Come Up to My Office” seemed muddled in New York but gain focus here. And Prince’s staging no longer seems so esoteric now that traditional wings and backdrops can provide an organizational and aesthetic frame (even the bizarre Memorial Day procession finally makes sense here). Had “Parade” gone the traditional proscenium route from the start, history might have been much kinder to this bold but uneven show.
Brown’s music holds up very well on another live hearing. Splendid ballads like “You Don’t Know This Man” are already widely admired, but in the hands of the terrific Keith Byron Kirk, bold numbers like “Feel the Rain Fall” reveal themselves as being underappreciated.
Some of the wrong-headed decisions still plague the show. Sticking a huge tree in the middle of the stage always was a dumb idea. Aside from its depressing shadow, the image removes most of the dramatic tension from the piece. Sure, most of the audience knows that suspected murderer and Jewish outsider Leo Frank is headed for a lynching. But it would be nice to suspend our disbelief for a while. The tree, sadly, lives on here and wreaks its damage.
There has also been no toning down of the fundamentalist character of Tom Watson, a melodramatic villain whose one-dimensional nature is in contrast with the ambiguous, realistic depictions of the other characters.
The other major problem with “Parade” is its muddled opening. It takes the audience 20 minutes to grasp the point of the action — by which time a good proportion of them are lost for good. It’s not until the terrific Daniel Frank Kelley (as the young murder victim’s boyfriend) hits the audience between the eyes in “There Is a Fountain/It Don’t Make No Sense” that the show suddenly gains enough emotional and melodic heft for the viewer to invest in the proceedings.
From that point on in this improved production, the show flows beautifully. Several members of the original cast are in supporting roles, but the piece benefits greatly from two strong new leads. Unafraid to deal with the antihero’s less attractive side, David Pittu improves the difficult character of Frank by making bold and specific choices. As a result, his tragic stature builds. And Andrea Burns also fleshes out Lucille Frank into a more empathetic figure. The palpable commitment and emotion onstage was not lost on the appreciative Minnesota audience.
Barring miracles, this will probably be the definitive production of “Parade.” While this piece will likely have a life in regional legit, that will surely involve reduced orchestrations and a much smaller cast. With a cast of 36 and first-rate production values, Atlanta’s Theater of the Stars and its investors have done this musical proud. Fans of the work — and it deserves its following — would be well advised to take a look.