A Reigning Parade

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Those are the opening bars of the musical Parade and that little bit of music tell you a great deal about the show as a whole. There's the military drum beat that evokes the Civil War, the bells and oboe melody that sound like Broadway and the atonal piano clusters which tells you the dissonant Parade is not your standard feel-good, leave-whistling-the-songs musical.

Indeed Parade is something much more complex. The story is about real life intolerance (racial and religious) in post-confederacy Atlanta. When it premiered on Broadway back in 1998, Parade was dressed up by director (and co-conceiver) Harold Prince to look like a grand, crowd-pleasing hit; but the bigger it looked, the more it felt — and sounded — like a smaller, darker, Off-Broadway show. I remember thinking, "It's exactly the type of musical I want to like: ambitious, intelligent, and yet, I can't say that I really liked it." I respected Parade's intentions, but musicals that earn respect are remembered (and revived) about as much those that earn indifference. The only musicals that matter are ones that are beloved.

One person who clearly loves Parade though is Rob Ashford. He was in the original cast as a swing and was the assistant choreographer. As director and choreographer of the production currently playing at the Taper, he has reconceived the piece in a bold but understated way that showcases the best aspects of Parade.

Many of these aspects are found in Parade's score, written by Jason Robert Brown. Those who know Brown from his shows 13 (which premiered at the Taper) The Last Five Years and Songs for a New World, would likely agree that he is more a songwriter than composer. Those shows are memorable, not for a coherent, integrated sound, but for the individual clever, tuneful numbers.

On Broadway, Brown's score sounded bloated and muddled with an orchestra of twenty; in this version (which originated at London's Donmar Warehouse), Ashford uses a nine-person band, and the music now sounds more appropriate to the time period and the pungency of Brown's writing can be heard.

Ashford's staging is also slimmed down. Prince's Broadway production offered a giant portentous tree and epic crowd scenes, whereas here the entire set is basically one balcony with a torn, faded mural of the Dixieland above it. All of the action, whether it takes place in homes, courtrooms or the governor's mansion all is presented with few props, careful lighting and inventive blocking. Nothing is lost and the modest stagecraft matches the bleak story.

T.R. Knight plays Leo Frank, the Jewish factory manager accused of killing a southern belle. He's an unlikable martyr, but that's what the role requires. Unfortunately he always feels like he's acting. This is not the case with David St. Louis, who plays the black foreman who is Frank's accuser. His performance gives the show a jolt of energy every time he's on stage. Michael Berresse and Charlotte d'Amboise, two veteran musical talents, play multiple roles with grace and aplomb.

One thing Ashford's staging gets right is that it never makes Frank a hero. On Broadway, Prince and actor Brent Carver portrayed Frank as a good man who was wronged. Here at the Taper, Frank is still a scapegoat, but he also comes across as flawed. His death is no less tragic or cruel because of this; but Ashford quietly makes it clear that we will never know what really happened.

This lack of a satisfying ending, and in general the show's downbeat mood and absence of heroes will always make Parade more a curiosity than a staple. This production at least embraces this complexity rather than papering over it with pageantry.

Parade runs at the Mark Taper Forum through November 15.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Craig Schwartz