2.23.08: Parade at the History Theater

February 24, 2008.By Tad Simons, Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.

Admittedly, the idea of a Jewish businessman being lynched for a murder he didn’t commit doesn’t immediately make people want to break out in song. (It takes a while.) But with Parade, a joint production of the Minnesota Jewish Theater Company and Theater Latté Da, you can have your murder and sing about it, too.

Theater purists have long argued that the musical is a maligned art form that has been all but destroyed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and the theater of saccharine spectacle. To those who still believe in it, musical theater has the potential to be a form of storytelling more akin to opera (but with less vibrato), capable of driving a powerful narrative while simultaneously mining a deeper emotional palette through music and song. In theory, the bigger the themes are, the better suited a story is for musical theater done right.

Well, themes don’t get much bigger than the ones in Parade, and fortunately, Theater Latté Da artistic director Peter Rothstein is a true believer. He founded Latté Da as an incubator for the possibilities of musical theater, and time after time—and again in Parade—, he’s proven that musicals don’t have to be all sentiment and schmaltz; they can be complex, persuasive, and compelling on their own terms, even if sales of the soundtrack CD might come up a little short.

Originally produced in 1998 in New York at the Lincoln Center Theater, Parade is based on the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish business manager from Brooklyn who, in 1913, was accused of, tried, and eventually lynched for the murder of a teenage girl who worked in the factory he managed in Atlanta, Georgia. Frank was innocent, but he got swept up in an inexorable tide of corruption, politics, bigotry, and blood thirst. Besides being a Jew from New York, he was a Yankee, he was smart, he was successful, and he was quite literally a pencil-necked geek (he ran a pencil factory).

Although the singing and music in Parade are first rate, the interesting thing about it is how well the songs dig beneath layer after layer of Southern pretense to expose the true motives behind the efficient scapegoating of Leo Frank. Frank, played by Dieter Bierbrauer, is clearly trapped in a culture he doesn’t understand. The kangaroo court that tries him is a mockery, and the evidence against him false, but the governor, district attorney, a newspaper publisher, and sleazy reporter all want him to be guilty—therefore, as they say in the South, “He done it.”

Parade is an enormous undertaking involving twenty-five actors, a six-piece orchestra, and a great deal of technical support, so pooling resources with the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company makes both thematic and practical sense. Director Rothstein has wisely cast equity talent in the key singing roles, so—with only a few minor exceptions—the actual music part of this show is eminently listenable. Ann Michels, as Leo Frank’s wife, and Shawn Hamilton, as a duplicitous factory worker, are both outstanding. And sound designer Montana Johnson deserves special recognition for making this thing better than most professional Broadway road shows that come through town.

But the reason you should go see Parade, especially if you’re not the type of person who hates musicals, is to see what the art form is capable of in hands as deft as Peter Rothstein’s. I won’t lie to you—there are a few numbers that get the needle on the schmaltz-meter jumping—but for the most part, Parade is a courageous, ambitious undertaking that succeeds on far more levels than anyone has a right to expect outside of Broadway. It may be one of the worst-named shows in history, but pulling it off this well is a great achievement.