The demanding, widely underappreciated 1994 tuner “Parade” may be coming into its own. An acclaimed 2007 revival at London’s Donmar Warehouse was scaled down in scope even as it ratcheted up the intensity. On its heels, the L.A. professional premiere from the South Bay’s Neighborhood Playhouse demonstrates the material’s suitability for a chamber ensemble approach, bringing out two potent narratives about prejudice: that between the community and the outsider, and that between spouses.
Helmer Brady Schwind refuses to reduce the tragedy of Leo Frank (a crisp, compelling Craig D’Amico), the New York Jewish executive charged in Atlanta with little Mary Phagan’s murder, and lynched in 1915, to a mere anti-Southern screed.
Certainly these townspeople possess a vicious blind spot when it comes to outsiders, a sentiment Leo returns; “they belong in zoos,” he hisses. But Frank’s railroading is scarier and more realistic when carried out by ordinary folk, not cartoon ogres. (This approach does hit a snag when it’s time for mob hysteria; these genteel folk gather to light torches because of plot demands, not inner need.)
Another case of cruel intolerance unfolds at the same time: Leo’s contempt for Southern-born wife Lucille (Emily Olson), she of bowed head and cringing demeanor. Thesps and helmer alike deserve kudos for carefully charting the path whereby Lucille, striving to prove Leo’s innocence, raises herself to full partnership to his joyous recognition.
Schwind takes advantage of the facility’s low-ceilinged room with wood paneling and spinning fans to seat us in three-quarter thrust inside a courtroom thriller. Alfred Uhry’s libretto proves sturdily capable of building suspense, even for those who know the outcome.
Numerous performers embrace nuance over cliche, notably Michael Prohaska as Leo’s good-ol’-boy attorney; James Larsen, embodying the town’s alcoholic, amoral newshound in both acting and dance; and Loren Smith and Tareek Lee Holmes, who offer fully realized portrayals as the two key African-American trial witnesses, the halting, troubled janitor Newt (Smith) and the slyly strutting Jim Conley (Holmes).
Only Michael Hovance’s constant smirk as prosecutor Dorsey smacks of easy caricature. His utter certainty about the outcome reduces tension, whereas an iron will to mete out justice might draw us in.
Musical director David Sateren does well by the lushly varied score in which Brown weaves a complex skein of influences from ragtime to jazz to blues, from the cakewalk to the slow drag. Choreographer Imara Quinonez incorporates numerous styles into her movement, and Karen Cornejo costumes the troupe handsomely, but lighting is murky and unfocused.