By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Troubling and gorgeous, Parade opened the Arden season Wednesday night. The show is hard to label: a musical tragedy? A chamber folk opera? Whatever it is, it is filled to the brim with glorious voices, giving us a theatrically exhilarating but politically somber night in the theater. Alfred Uhry wrote the book and Jason Robert Brown the music and lyrics, co-conceived by Harold Prince.
Parade begins with a parade celebrating Confederate Memorial Day in a town in Georgia; “Why,” Leo Frank, the show’s central character asks, “would anyone want to celebrate losing a war?” Based on an historical series of events that took place one hundred years ago, the plot charts a hideous miscarriage of justice as Leo (the superb Ben Dibble), is falsely accused of murdering a thirteen year old girl.
As a Jew from Brooklyn, Leo is a misfit in the “Southland,” despite being married to “a Georgia girl” (Jennie Eisenhower) and running a factory which employs many of the locals.
This is Klan land, and once anti-Semitism is unleashed there is no containing it, especially as it is fed by ugly journalism and corrupt testimony. Jeffrey Coon as the muckraking journalist desperate for a story sings “Big News” with his thrilling big voice. Derrick Cobey’s sensational voice provides first fun and then menace, while Scott Greer is the Governor willing to take a huge political risk--and do an adorable series of dances to “Pretty Music.” Michael Philip O’Brien, another of those knockout voices that can make the hair on my arms stand up, begins and ends the show with “The Old Red Hills of Home”—but by the finale, those hills are looking a lot less appealing than they did three hours earlier.
Some of the outstanding musical numbers include a passionate and painful love duet, “All the Wasted Time” sung by Dibble and Eisenhower, and the soaring and frightening ensemble piece, “Hammer of Justice.” Dibble provides a perverted fantasy number, “Come Up to My Office” that is shockingly lecherous.
Staged with wise restraint by Terrence J. Nolen and Jorge Cousineau, the set is minimal, using a large, gilt-framed, old-timey film to provide locations, giving a sepia charm to the vile events.