A martial cadence is heard throughout the soul-rattling musical “Parade.” You could think of it as the drumbeat of history — a history from which we repeatedly fail to learn.
Time and the daily headlines just keep reaffirming the power of this 1998 musical by Alfred Uhry and lyricist-composer Jason Robert Brown. A difficult show about wrenching topics, “Parade” is infrequently staged, but the Chance Theater in Anaheim is making a go of it just when it should be heard. This visually arresting, emotionally potent production is hard to shake off afterward.
In “Parade,” a man’s religion, origin and social position mark him for persecution at a moment when the public needs an outlet for its collective frustration. Uhry and Brown base their work on the 1913 trial of Leo Frank, a Jewish Northerner indicted for the murder of a 13-year-old girl at the factory he supervised in Atlanta, a city still hurting from the Civil War. Though Frank is not the only suspect, he is, as an outsider, the preferred scapegoat of a showboat prosecutor who’s under pressure from a constituent-wary governor. The public devours every bit of news, true or fake, that reinforces its worldview.
This is the tale not of one man, but of a society, which director-choreographer Kari Hayter subtly underscores by keeping the cast close at hand to, literally, set the stage for each new development in the story by precisely rearranging the minimal scenic elements — a collection of chairs and small tables — on the raw-plank playing area.
Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy”) and Brown (whose subsequent shows include “The Last Five Years”) launch the show with a rousingly patriotic number — “The Old Red Hills of Home” — that yearns for the past, “When the Southland was free.” The song segues into 1913’s Confederate Memorial Day in Atlanta as Brooklyn-raised Frank (Allen Everman) stiffly departs his wife, Lucille (Erica Schaeffer), and heads to the factory like a fish against a stream of celebrating townsfolk.
He is no clear-cut hero, just as the townsfolk are not cardboard villains. Lean, with slick hair and bookish, wire-framed glasses, Everman bears a striking resemblance to the real Frank, pictured in a lobby display. His body language, like that of the man in the pictures, is prim and closed. He is curt, officious, hard to like. These qualities work against him when the local solicitor general (the towering, truly imposing Chris Kerrigan) tries to pin him for the murder of young Mary Phagan (Gabrielle Adner, with large bows at each side of her face like the real Mary in the lobby photos).
The first act is a slowly tightening noose. The second act seems to loosen it as Lucille works inexhaustibly in her husband’s defense, despite his objections, until he finally recognizes her as the equal partner she always has been. Their voices twine, gorgeously, in “All the Wasted Time.” Here, as always, Schaeffer displays a crystalline voice and true heart; Everman brings a finely calibrated performance to its penultimate moment.
The African American perspective is concisely conveyed by Summer Greer and Robert Stroud in the gospel-blues number “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’,” which observes that, although “There’s a black man swingin’ in ev’ry tree,” the North is finally paying attention because a white man is set to hang.
Robert Collins, portraying a factory janitor turned informant, pins the audience to its seats with the show’s big, powerhouse number: the chain-gang-like “Blues: Feel the Rain Fall.”
In this song as in so many others, spellbinding melodies carry chilling messages. The singing, with a couple of exceptions, is superb. The most arresting voice belongs to Dillon Klena, whose expert phrasing and emphasis magnify the already considerable power of the material he’s given in a succession of young-man roles, including a friend of Mary’s who thirsts for vengeance. Robyn Manion leads six offstage instrumentalists.
Richly evocative throughout, Hayter’s staging (moodily complemented by Masako Tobaru’s lighting) delivers its defining image just moments from the end, when two characters, forever linked by tragedy, somberly exit the story side by side.
Frank is perceived as an elitist, out of touch with the common man. At the same time, he is regarded as a dangerous outsider who should be shut behind walls. He can be read any number of ways, all pertinent to America’s persistent divisions. Such is the enduring relevance of “Parade.”
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: The Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; ends July 30
Tickets: $40 and $45
Information: (888) 455-4212, www.ChanceTheater.com
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
MORE THEATER COVERAGE: