A DEADLY GAME Herreid and Thurston.
Parade might be the best musical, as well as the most unlikely one, that you've never seen. Its one-line plot description isn't exactly alluring. Not only is it about the murder of a child, it's about anti-Semitism in the South, in that the accused killer was Jewish.
Given a marvelous production by the Brown University/Trinity Rep Consortium through December 11, it's directed by Talya Klein. With book by Alfred Uhry and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, it was co-created and directed on Broadway in 1998 by Harold Prince, winning Tonys for Best Book and Original Musical Score.
Yet, given its storyline, it wasn't popular, and closed after a short run. Can't take the truth, Manhattan theater audiences?
It's based on the 1913 murder in Atlanta of a young female worker. Standing accused in a subsequent trial was the Jewish superintendent of the pencil factory, Leo Frank (Charlie Thurston). The anti-Semitism comes into play not only with the prosecutor's enthusiasm in latching onto him as prime suspect but also in the ease with which witnesses were found to implicate him, sometimes by blatantly lying. Frank couldn't have fit their stereotype better if he had been picked from central casting, being not only a Yankee but a Yankee from Brooklyn, reluctantly having moved to Atlanta for work four years earlier.
This production is performed in the round, so we as well as the ensemble surround the action like co-conspirators in the large open space of the Pell Chafee Performance Center. A small orchestra plays behind the actors, but they wear microphones, so not much is lost to the background volume.
Everyone in this story has a strong emotional involvement in the proceedings, so the musical component of Parade is all the more important, since it's such an emotion megaphone. Amplifying that is the non-naturalistic presentation: white greasepaint emphasizes the racist bias of some of the characters, including an African American couple.
Thurston catapults Leo Frank on a compelling dramatic arc, from constantly irritable toward his wife at the beginning to warmly appreciative of her toward the end, when her support is all he has. Lucille Frank (Caroline Kaplan) goes through her own changes, from being so self-conscious of being stared at that she doesn't want to attend his trial to growing into a compassionate helpmate. By the time she is singing, in lovely voice, "You Don't Know," as a defense of his character, the story has become quite affecting. (The vocal talent varies, but Thurston, Will Austin, and Darien Battle also deserve singling out for kudos.)
Frank admits to having spoken to the victim, 13-year-old Mary Phagan (Emeline Herreld), not long before she was strangled, paying her for her work that week. Mary's body was found the next day in the factory basement.
The prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey, is given a zealous verve by Will Austin, as he buckles down to the business of making sure somebody hangs for the crime. He's encouraged by eager crime reporter Britt Craig (Philippe Bowgen), who makes sure that fairness and journalistic restraint don't stand in the way of a good story. The night janitor at the factory, Newt Lee (Battle), is briefly interviewed as a suspect and is appropriately terrified, knowing the usual outcome of such queries for black men.