As news of Nazi rallies in Orlando and a white nationalist conference just outside Walt Disney World has Central Florida buzzing, Garden Theater is opening a musical that meets the moment this week: PARADE.
First shown on Broadway in 1998, PARADE is the true story of Jewish American Leo Frank, who in the early 1900s was wrongfully convicted of murdering a young girl and then lynched by community leaders at the exterior of Atlanta.
Alfred Uhry’s book and Jason Robert Brown’s extensive musical score each won Tonys in the show’s original run. Their presentation of this highly entangled court case is light on detail and relies on narrative convention. It’s their way of covering a lot of ground – and even more characters – in just two acts without overwhelming their audience. It may be my legal training that’s showing up, but I can’t help but wish for more underlying facts as the legal proceedings speed by. This desire extends to the very end, where a lingering question mark can puzzle even the most non-lawyer client.
But PARADE is less interested in a journalistic investigation than in a thematic reflection on universal vices: anti-Semitism, judicial injustice, popular mentality, racism and haste to judgement. In a state where these evils are terribly systemic and resurgent, perhaps PARADE is focusing exactly where it should be.
There’s an interesting moment early in George Jackson’s lighting design, when the set is awash in eerie shades of red just as the characters angrily demand justice, long before the show begins to explicitly tie this application to any racial animosity. The suggestion is that this impulse alone – the instinctive turn to the criminal justice system as a balm for emotional wounds – is in itself a very dangerous thing, a breeding ground for racism. Implicitly, the production asks us to understand that a reactionary call for justice can be what gives precisely its opposite.
The state of Florida has one of the highest incarceration rates in the United States, a country which, at least according to the official count, has more people in prison per capita than Russia or China (a fact which hits particularly hard this week). Many of them have never been convicted by a jury. This fact is so deeply disturbing and yet so true that it makes a production like The Garden not only timely but downright essential.
And what a production it is. Set designer Joshua E. Gallagher has created a two-story set that uses nearly every square inch of available space, with the walls of this courtroom angled like the “justice” served within. At a key moment, lights shine on ceiling fans in the rafters, casting swaying shadows on these walls for eerie effect. The balconies and escalators are well conceptualized, logically fitting each of the other main settings – an affluent Georgian house, a prison and working factory and its offices upstairs. The fine carpentry of Oceas Rodriguez is so substantial that it looks like a permanent feature, its imposing construction recalls the faithful and ruthless institutions that these monuments represent.
Choreographer Roberta Emerson and director Joseph Walsh achieved remarkable kinetic energy from start to finish. Elaborate blocking is undoubtedly a challenge given the limited space and the number of actors on stage (often more than a dozen in a single scene). Their use of benches and chairs as ever-changing on-site platforms is clever, artful, and – especially when these chairs slam to dramatic effect – powerful.
Sean Powell is remarkably strong in his lead role as Leo Frank, earning audience empathy even as his character responds in an entirely human and therefore flawed way. Even in a very talented company, Powell’s voice and diction stand out. Cherry Gonzalez strikes an effective Southern accent as Leo’s wife Lucille — not flashy but consistent, just enough for authenticity — and packs a punch with her heartbreaking belts.
Other stars include Landon Summers whose unnerving and gripping intensity as Tom Watson is key to the show’s thesis; Joel Hunt whose dramatic range takes teenager Frankie Epps from Mouseketeer to monster and whose singing is outstanding; Kyle Adkins whose perfect accent and shrewd political swagger as Hugh Dorsey are ready for the prime-time screen; Ron Miles whose textured voice makes an immediate impression in his roles as Judge Roan and Old Soldier; and John Gracey who brings compelling distinctive portrayals to two important roles as Britt Craig the reporter and John Slaton the governor.
Da’Zaria Harris and Keenan J. Harris open the second act with one of the most memorable musical numbers, which asks why the murder of a white girl gets more media attention than that of a young black girl – a question so important even today that it is a pity. the show doesn’t pursue him much further, an example of PARADE wanting to do more than he has time for. But Keenan and Da’Zaria make sure “Rumblin’ and a Rollin'” lives up to its name, with strong vocals each.
Jesse Harris, Brooke Herrera, Joe Llorens, Madison Poston, Lilly Scarlett Reid and finally Victoria Salisbury as the late Mary Phagan complete this talented ensemble.
There’s so much more to Leo Frank’s story than this show can hope to convey, but it’s an open door to new research and thinking, which the Sunshine State seems to need now more than anyone could have hoped. . The Garden Theater has themed its current season around concepts of identity and belonging, an artistic direction that, in hindsight, seems fortuitous if not downright prescient. Long-time patrons have surely noted an overall enrichment in the artistry on stage at The Garden and in the thoughtfulness of its seasonal selections of late, a testament no doubt to Walsh’s conscientious artistic direction and talents at the head of a show. With PARADE, The Garden continues to fortify itself as an important space for the art its community needs.
How to get tickets
PARADE runs until March 13, 2022. Seating is no longer distanced, but a strict mask mandate remains in place for patrons. The actors perform without masks. (The Garden doesn’t specify whether the cast and crew are vaccinated or undergoing Covid testing.) Thankfully, limited concession sales have now returned to the lobby, while print programs are sadly still on hold. Digital programs remain available via QR code or at https://www.gardentheatre.org/, where tickets are still available for the remainder of the run.
What did you think of PARADE at the Garden Theatre? Let me know on Twitter: @aaronwallace
Photos by Steven Miller Photography, Courtesy of Garden Theater