”Parade” review – Ben Platt is back on stage in robust revival of Tony-winning musical

Ben Platt in Parade
Ben Platt in Parade
© Joan Marcus
The wheels of justice turn as slowly in musical theatre as they do in real life. Twenty-four years after its very short-lived Broadway premiere, Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s Tony-winning Parade has finally returned to New York City. It’s back now for a only week at City Center and it’s not a moment too soon. Instead of perennially viewing Parade as an ambitious challenge, the time is right to reappraise this epic musical — which tells the real-life story of a town going (as the rapper formerly known as Kanye would say) “Defcon 3” on the Jewish man they believe raped and murdered a teenage girl — and call it what it is: a work of art ahead of its time.

In Michael Arden’s entirely thrilling but physically frustrating revival, its leading man is the audience draw. Ben Platt plays Leo Frank, a Brooklyn Jew transplanted to Atlanta, where he’s married to Southern Jewish belle Lucille (Michaela Diamond) and works as the superintendent of a pencil factory. After the corpse of his 13 year-old worker Mary (Erin Rose Doyle) is found in the basement of the plant, Leo is arrested alongside his night watchman, Newt Lee (Eddie Cooper). But for local prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (Paul Alexander Nolan, perfectly slimy), hanging yet another Black man isn’t good enough this time, so he sets his sights on demonising and convicting the town Jew.

Parade is a musical with an enormous cast, and this production boasts many a Broadway luminary. Sean Allan Krill is extremely effective as the Governor who puts his political ambitions aside to do the right thing and reopen Leo’s case after his conviction. Manoel Felciano is downright terrifying as extremist rightwing journalist Tom Watson, whose anti-Semitic sentiments further Leo’s damnation. Erin Mackey and Stranger Things‘s Gaten Matarazzo are stirring as Mary’s mother and boyfriend, respectively. Stage mainstays Jennifer Laura Thompson, Howard McGillin, Jay Armstrong Johnson, John Dossett, and Douglas J Lyons do very well in less pivotal roles. And Alex Joseph Grayson scores one of the night’s most rousing ovations for “That’s What He Said,” the fake testimony that gets Leo convicted.

For theatre fanatics, there’s more of a draw than just the amazing company. City Center has given the Tony-winning score the deluxe treatment of our dreams, with a 24-piece orchestra playing Don Sebesky’s original orchestrations, conducted by Brown himself (and with his wife, Georgia Stitt, on keys). What a thrill it is to hear Brown’s stirring masterwork in all its glory, but if you’re a nerd like me and were hoping to watch him bring it to life, you’re out of luck.

This leads to the biggest downside of the evening: Arden’s production has been designed for the massive venue without sightlines in mind. Dane Laffrey’s set is a stage-length elevated platform below a smaller elevated platform, the latter of which is meant to symbolize the gallows. It’s where most of the action takes place. At no point will you see everything — if you’re too close, you’ll have to crane your neck to catch the actors, who sometimes feel like they’re in mid-air. If you’re too high up, you’ll miss Sven Ortel’s projected images of the real-life figures involved with the story (a nifty, if sophomoric, touch). The orchestra, for the record, is hidden all the way at the back of the stage; if you’re sitting anywhere on the main floor, all you’ll see is the fleeting wave of Brown’s baton every now and then. It’s a crime in itself to have an orchestra that big, conducted by the composer, and not have it in full view.

When the right actors are put in the right roles, it creates the kind of alchemy that we go to the theater hoping to see. That happens here with both Platt and Diamond, who are terrific as Leo and Lucille. Leo, in particular, is a difficult role, a cypher who spends most of the night emotionally and physically isolated (he even spends the intermission onstage sitting in his jail cell, the audience alternating between leering at him and tweeting about it). Platt delivers the kind of performance that takes you back to the early days of Dear Evan Hansen, back when there were no preconceived notions about his acting ability and you just had to see him to believe it. His nervous energy is a perfect fit for Leo, and he rightfully owns that great 11 o’clock volcano eruption called “This Is Not Over Yet”. He turns it into the showstopper that it needs to be (albeit with a wobbly vibrato here and there).

Diamond brings a steely reserve to Lucille, her expressive face almost believing that her husband is innocent, with a reserved doubt or two burrowed somewhere in her head. She eventually casts that aside and takes her place as his fervent defender and the show’s beating heart, giving us a gorgeous “You Don’t Know This Man.” Together, they create a passionate “All the Wasted Time” where sparks do fly before the inevitable ending.

As with any high-profile show with an even higher-profile cast, the rumor mill is already flying about a potential Broadway transfer. I know as much as you do about that, which is to say that I don’t know anything. But I do know this. With the ongoing prevalence of anti-Semitism around the country and the world, the century-old story of Leo Frank has never been scarier or felt more real to me as a Jew than it does now. That Arden’s production of Parade captures the zeitgeist, Dayenu. That it’s so good, with an excellent company and tight orchestra, is a an even bigger Mitzvah.