by Clark Groome
“Parade’s” pedigree is impeccable: book by Alfred Uhry of “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Last Night of Ballyhoo”; music by the brilliant young composer Jason Robert Brown; originally conceived by the inestimable Harold Prince; a true story that contains elements of bigotry, humanity and terror; a splendid cast led by Ben Dibble and Jennie Eisenhower; and an imaginative design team.
For all of that, “Parade,” which is playing at the Arden Theatre through Nov. 3, is somewhat heavy-handed and predictable.
The story involves a northern Jew (Dibble) who is accused of murdering a 13-year old girl at his pencil factory in Atlanta, the city of his business and of his lovely, devoted wife (Eisenhower).
There is no real evidence that he’s guilty. He’s convicted only because his lawyer’s incompetent, the prosecutor’s corrupt, and the judge’s mind borders on senility.
When his death sentence is overturned, the locals take matters into their own hands and lynch him, one of the rare times (if not the only time) when a non-black was lynched in Georgia.
It’s an interesting story, but “Parade” suffers from what is a major flaw: the central character — Leo Frank, the accused and a man about whom we should feel sympathy — is never fleshed out. He and most of the other characters are all simply pawns (if well-written pawns) in a story that has the sole purpose of denouncing the injustices that spring from narrow-mindedness and political corruption. This is a play about issues — racism, anti-Semitism, the role of women — more than it is about the real-life characters on which it is based.
Arden’s Terrence J. Nolen has staged the piece fluidly on Jorge Cousineau’s deceptively simple set, which features Cousineau’s superb video projections that help tell the story in an impressively original way. Thom Weaver has lighted the production in contrasting moments of brilliance and foreboding. Rosemarie E. McKelvey’s costumes seem just right for the piece’s1913-1915 period.
The large cast, starting with Dibble and Eisenhower and including particularly notable performances from Derrick Cobey, Jeffrey Coon, Scott Greer, Kenita R. Miller and Anthony Lawton, is first rate. They infuse their generally underwritten characters with surprising depth.
The star of the show, however, is Jason Robert Brown’s terrific score. The music is memorable, melodic and totally appropriate for the era in which the show is set.
For tickets call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org.
Ed. note: Jennie Eisenhower, 35, who grew up in nearby Valley Forge, is the granddaughter of a U.S. president (Richard Nixon) and the great-granddaughter of another U.S. president and World War II hero (Dwight D. Eisenhower).