Theater: “Parade” reveals more of South”s dirty little secrets

Oct 30, 2007 at 6:24 pm

“Parade”: Photo by Christy Ferrell  Larry Singer, Jeremy Moon and the cast of CenterStage’s “Parade” bring the story of Leo Frank to life on the Jewish Community Center stage.
“Parade”: Photo by Christy Ferrell Larry Singer, Jeremy Moon and the cast of CenterStage’s “Parade” bring the story of Leo Frank to life on the Jewish Community Center stage.
Starring Jeremy Moon, Emily Fields, Olivia Duff, Shawn Slone, Frank Goodloe III and Jason Cooper. Co-conceived by Harold Prince. Book by Alfred Uhry. Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Justin Hornback. Presented by CenterStage at the Jewish Community Center, 3600 Dutchmans Lane. Continues through Nov. 11. For tickets, call 459-0660.

    Every now and then, a show comes along that reminds me why I love theater. CenterStage’s production of the American opera “Parade” is one of those inspirations. Director John Leffert masterfully delivers a show you’ll never forget, bringing highly professional Broadway-style production values to the small stage at the Jewish Community Center.

    The story is about pencil-factory operator Leo Frank, a Brooklyn Jew who is accused of raping and murdering 13-year-old employee Mary Phagan (Olivia Duff) during Atlanta’s 1913 Civil War memorial parade. Corrupt politicians and police are eager to close the case quickly, regardless of whether they have the right man.

Phagan’s untimely death set into motion a number of history-changing events, including the first time a black man’s testimony convicted a white man in the South, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the formation of the Anti-Defamation League. Controversy over who really killed Phagan rages to this day.

    Usually, trial scenes just don’t work on stage. Not so here. Silhouettes of six-pointed ceiling fans slowly turn behind the judge, telegraphing the stifling Southern heat and symbolizing the Star of David — as if Judaism itself were on trial. Jeremy Moon, as Leo, is especially memorable in the courtroom number “Come Up to My Office,” a sort-of dream sequence representing the angry mob’s vision of him as a lecherous seducer of girls and boys. Anti-Semitic graphic images from the 1920s Weimar Republic spring to mind.

    Alfred Uhry, author of “Driving Miss Daisy,” created “Parade” out of his fascination with Leo Frank. In real life, Uhry’s great uncle hired Frank to run his Atlanta pencil factory in the early part of the 1900s. Uhry teamed with Harold Prince to create probably the bleakest topic in the history of musical theater. Although Stephen Sondheim was originally slated to write the music, Jason Robert Brown, in his Broadway debut, provided a wonderfully Sondheim-like score on his own, very reminiscent of “Sunday in the Park with George.” Brown and Uhry each won Tony awards for “Parade.”

    Leffert deserves credit for going out on a limb in selecting a modern, serious show to challenge local audiences instead of spoon-feeding us the same tired old musicals we see year in, year out. Take note: This is your last chance to see the show as it was originally produced. A new revised version will become the only one available for licensed productions beginning in 2008. Unfortunately, the new incarnation cuts one of the best numbers, “Big News.” So, catch this “Parade” before it passes by. For more information on the revisions and the show in general, visit Brown’s blog at