Moonbox Productions continues its impressive run of presenting complicated, adult musicals with more polish, professionalism, and nuance than most other companies in the Boston area, even those with more cash and more clout.
Parade tells the story of the arrest, conviction, and lynching of an innocent man, Leo Frank, for the rape and murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan in Atlanta in 1913. Frank was an outsider, a Brooklyn Jew, who moved to the south to become the superintendent of the National Pencil Company. Once in Atlanta, he met the woman who would become his wife, Lucille, who was also Jewish, but with deep Southern roots. Rampant anti-Semitism fueled by a sensationalist media—as well as government and law enforcement corruption—all contributed to securing a guilty verdict despite proof of coerced testimony and no actual evidence.
The narrative went something like this: A poor, young, Southern child laborer was raped and murdered by the deviant, affluent, Jewish Yankee who has no business being down here anyway. He was convicted easily, but his wife, Lucille, worked tirelessly to bring attention to her husband’s case.
The governor ended up commuting Frank’s sentence from death to life in prison, which enraged the public. It also activated some of Georgia’s most zealous racists who formed the “Knights of Mary Phagan,” a group of men that abducted Frank from his jail cell, drove him 150 miles to Marietta, and lynched him from an oak tree facing in the direction of the slain child’s house. The Frank case was majorly influential: It led to the creation of the Anti-Defamation League, but it is also largely credited with igniting the resurgence of the KKK. To this day, white supremacists run websites dedicated to proving Frank’s guilt.
Over 100 years later, we are seeing a resurgence in anti-Semitism, racism, and hatred of all kinds, as well as an emboldened alt-right who dismiss facts as fake yet spin lies to further their agenda. This is part of the reason why watching Parade today is perhaps more brutally chilling than it ever has been: It’s too far-fetched to imagine that this couldn’t happen today.
Parade was a tough sell when it opened on Broadway in 1998, almost exactly 21 years ago to the day. Maybe it was the subject matter—or maybe the lukewarm reviews—but the original production, which was directed by Hal Prince, only ran for 85 performances. And that isn’t to say that it’s not a tough sell now, particularly at a time in the season where theatrical offerings are oozing with enough treacly good cheer to gag one of Santa’s elves. But Parade has enjoyed considerable life post-Broadway, mostly due to Jason Robert Brown’s extraordinary Tony-winning score, which has elevated the status of the bleak musical in the minds of those who are still discovering the musical through its Broadway cast recording. (The score, in this production, is given first-rate treatment by musical director Catherine Stornetta and her nine-piece orchestra.)
That’s because Brown’s score is exquisite, and it’s where most of the musical’s drama and heart lie. And while Parade is still a very good musical, there are structural problems—not all having to do with Alfred Uhry’s Tony-winning book—that forever keep it from truly being a perfect musical, should any such thing exist. So much time is spent on secondary characters that Leo and Lucille sometimes seem beside the point. This doesn’t undercut the emotional wallop of the end of the musical, but it does lessen what ought to remain the emotional center, which is Leo and Lucille’s relationship. Parade is a story of brutal injustice, but it is also a deep love story. Without it, the musical is almost too dismal for words.
None of this, of course, has anything to do with Moonbox’s production, so my apologies to director Jason Modica for my tangent. Modica’s production is thoughtfully conceived, and fills out the Roberts Studio Theatre more effectively than I think I’ve ever seen, with great help from Lindsay Genevieve Fuori’s set, Steve Shack’s lighting, Chelsea Kerl’s costumes, and Elizabeth Cahill’s sound. Modica has chosen to frame his production with a pseudo-meta-theatrical device that is chilling when it works, but at certain points gets in the way of the storytelling and doesn’t ultimately feel necessary. But I love the way that he has Mary Phagan (an excellent Anna Bortnick) on stage for much of the musical, and while the way that Leo’s lynching is staged is a departure from the script, it greatly disturbed me, which is exactly what it needs to do.
Phil Tayler, who gave two of my favorite performances in Moonbox’s Cabaret and the Lyric’s Buyer & Cellar, is an affecting Leo Frank, but I would have wished for a calmer, slightly more measured portrayal. As his wife, Lucille, Haley K. Clay, in her professional debut, beautifully shoulders the burden of a wife who is breaking inside but must remain strong. Also giving notable performances are Gable Kinsman, whose smooth tenor makes musical highlights out of “The Old Red Hills” and “It Don’t Make Sense,” and Dan Prior, whose does delicious double duty as reporter Britt Craig and Governor Slaton.
But the performance that blew my mind—the one that will have me forever scanning my program to see where he’ll next appear—is that of Aaron Patterson, a junior at the Boston Conservatory. Brilliant beyond his years, Patterson oozes charm and showmanship as Jim Conley, a convicted felon—and janitor at the National Pencil Company—whose bogus testimony helped to convict Frank. He was an asset earlier this year in SpeakEasy’s Choir Boy, but with his dazzling and extraordinary performance in Parade, Patterson becomes one of the most exciting new talents on the scene.
Parade is a hard show to watch, but it’s a harder show to stage well, and this revival is another example of how Moonbox Productions is doing God’s work, bringing top-notch productions of complicated musicals to Boston. I must say, Moonbox fills a void, a void that exists both in the city of Boston, and in my cold, theater-loving heart.
PARADE. THROUGH 12.28 AT MOONBOX PRODUCTIONS AT THE ROBERTS STUDIO THEATRE, 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. MOONBOXPRODUCTIONS.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.