Wednesday, June 7, 2023

REVIEW: Parade

Review of the matinee performance on Saturday, June 3, 2023 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York City. Starring Ben Platt, Micaela Diamond, Alex Joseph Grayson, Sean Allan Krill, Howard McGillin, Paul Alexander Nolan, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Manoel Felciano, Kelli Barrett, Aurelia Williams, Eddie Cooper, Erin Rose Doyle, Danielle Lee Greaves, Douglas Lyons, Jake Pederson. Book by Alfred Uhry. Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Orchestrations by Don Sebesky and Jason Robert Brown. Co-conceived by Harold Prince. Scenic design by Dane Lafferty. Costume design by Susan Hilfery. Lighting design by Heather Gilbert. Sound design by Jon Weston. Projection design by Sven Ortel. Choreography by Lauren Yalango-Grant and Christopher Cree Grant. Direction by Michael Arden. 2 hours, 30 minutes including one intermission. Closes August 6, 2023.

Grade: A+

The original production of Parade was award-winning, yet short-lived, and like many challenging pieces, it was ahead of its time. For better or for worse, now is the perfect time for moment of history so beautifully, horrifyingly captured by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry's masterwork. Now heading into its final two months of a limited engagement, this stunning, important production is not to be missed. 

Helmed by Tony nominee Michael Arden (and choreographed by Lauren Yalango-Grant and Christopher Cree Grant), this musical is tight and fat-free. Not a single moment is wasted - every second is in service to the compelling events of the book and its themes. The red, white and blue of the Confederate, Georgian and American flags are literally in your face throughout, fraught with deadly emotion masquerading as patriotism, and frightening in its ever-changing meaning. Act one is particularly maddening in its nearly bias-free presentation - just the facts, the politics, the belief systems, boldly portrayed as if we are only to observe, then draw our own conclusions. It is ugly and difficult. Even during several thrilling flashbacks, we see only what we are allowed to see, interpreted by those who lived it. It is only when the trial begins and in its aftermath, that we are allowed to make connections between truth and lies, justice and power, life and death. Arden carefully doled out the emotions up to this point, then opened the flood gates during act two. 

The presentational style of this staging is breathtaking throughout, aided by a fully realized physical production. Dane Lafferty's austere wood-planked platform festooned with patriotic bunting, and surrounded by a variety of period chairs for the citizenry of Georgia to observe (and often look away), fairly reeks of Americana. It is not a good smell. The projections, brilliantly curated and presented by Sven Ortel, are stunning and provide real faces with the names of all those involved - a constant reminder that what we are watching happened in real places with real people. Often it struck me that, as these are largely black and white portraits, all seemed like wanted posters. Heather Gilbert's lighting, moody and sometimes harsh definitely added to experience, most notably for its lack of subtlety (in this case a good thing), and Jon Weston's sound design was perfection. The costumes by Susan Hilferty, historically accurate down to the buttons and hairpins, had the feel of both a living museum and sepia-toned camera readiness. The look and sound of the whole thing was as wondrous as the performance itself.

Much like the now-historic Encores! Chicago, and this season's Into the Woods,  this transfer to Broadway includes a cast of all-stars and exciting up and coming talent - a wonderful by-product of such a move. To that end, this company is top-notch from above-the-title stars to the swings and understudies. The supporting ensemble - aces, all - includes such stand-outs as Charlie Webb as the Young Soldier, who opens the show with a gorgeous rendering of "The Old Red Hills of Home." The factory girls are played by Sophie Manicone, Ashlyn Maddox, and Emily Rose DeMartino, and "The Factory Girls/Come Up to My Office" was a chillingly executed scene. T
heir haunting, broken innocence was uncomfortable and sad to watch. 

No one in Southern society escapes the machinations of the events portrayed in Uhry's book. The duplicity of life for African Americans shows up in many forms, from the brutally honest and wry "A Rumblin' and a Rollin'" act two opener, delightfully delivered by Douglas Lyons and Aurelia Williams, as staff in the Governor's mansion. The guilty until proven innocent reality of life portrayed with a world-weariness by Eddie Cooper as the accused janitor, and the guilt of betrayal of the Frank's maid poignantly played by Danielle Lee Greaves both captured their moments perfectly. Alex Joseph Grayson's bravado and arrogance as escaped convict, now murder suspect Jim Conley, is jaw-dropping in its intensity. His chain gang number, "Blues: Feel the Rain Fall," deservedly brings down the house. He is simply stunning, and someone I look forward to seeing again soon.

Stacie Bono, as the First Lady of Georgia, and Kelli Barrettas the murder victim's mother, offered strong depictions of women on each end of the economic spectrum. Mary Phagan, the murdered young girl, was played with a coy and ethereal presence by Erin Rose Doyle, while Jake Pederson as Frankie Epps morphed from an awkward, smitten teen into a seething, impressionable rebel with frightening ease. I see wonderful careers ahead for both Ms. Doyle and Mr. Pederson, both making their Broadway Debuts here.

Scary in its parallels to the current state of our country, the confluence of far-right politics and religion are on full display here, as embodied by Georgia Governor Slaton (Sean Allan Krill), Judge Roan (Howard McGillin), Hugh Dorsey (Paul Alexander Nolan), and Reverend Tom Watson (Manoel Felciano). How these events are so much like what is going on today is mind blowing. All four Broadway veterans are bringing their A-game here: Felciano's fiery righteousness is horrifying, Krill has never been better in a truly challenging role, McGillin is in fine voice and grand stature, and it is great to see Nolan in a role and production worthy of his talents. (His duet with Mr. McGillin, "The Glory," is a highlight.) Finally, Jay Armstrong Johnson plays the journalist-as-showman role with a seedy fervor recognizable from many a modern news channel today. 

I knew from the moment I saw her in The Cher Show, that Micaela Diamond was going to be a force to be reckoned with. But nothing prepared me for her earth-moving triumph here. Brilliant in its specificity and attention to the smallest of details, her performance as Lucille Frank sets a new standard. Often rigid and unmovable, her Lucille is a force, albeit a stoic one at first. The result is a feeling of detached loneliness. One wonders if this woman actually loves her husband. Slowly, the layers peel back, and when she gets to "You Don't Know This Man," the near explosion of emotion grabs you by the throat. The exhilaration of "This Is Not Over Yet" is a jolt of empowerment, but her tour-de-force moment is one of the last of the show. The picnic scene brought me to tears, with her unwavering strength and belief that all will turn out well. She is heartbreaking.

From that picnic scene through the soul-crushing finale, Ben Platt had me completely won over. What an absolute revelation his performance here is. His unnerving calm in the face of impending doom, followed by a resolute coming to terms with Frank's ultimate demise, was by turns maddening and cathartic. A complete and full performance, I am at a loss still as to how to reconcile what I saw. Whether he was reenacting how it wasn't at his office that day, or that gorgeous picnic scene with Ms. Diamond as they blew the audience away with "All the Wasted Time," or the desperation of needing to die with dignity, Mr. Platt gives a performance for the ages. 

There simply aren't enough adjectives or words that even do justice to the magnitude of this production. All I can think of is "thank you." Every one of you.

📸: M. Klein, J. Marcus

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