A large, aged mural crowns the upstage wall of Christopher Oram's beautifully minimalistic set. As the 1913 Confederate Memorial Day parade winds through the streets of Atlanta, 13-year-old Mary Phagan is brutally raped and murdered at the factory where she worked and her boss, Leo Frank (Knight), quickly becomes the prime suspect. At key moments in the story, the faces gain clarity and color, and the hidden image of a Confederate flag glows bloody red from underneath. But even in its usual faded state, the mural is a powerful omnipresent image that subtly sets the tone for this dramatic, fact-based musical.
Ashford's keen eye for detail and storytelling is on display throughout the show, no matter whether we're watching an intimate scene between a distanced husband and wife who find love in the midst of adversity or a nightmarish courtroom dance depicting the hysteria-fueled lies accepted as proof of an innocent man's guilt. Uhry's moving (albeit rather one-sided) book and Brown's versatile and evocative score flow seamlessly and supportively in and out of each other; and together with Ashford's solid work, they form a strong foundation for an exceptional cast to work their magic.
Knight acts the hell of his role as Frank, an educated Jewish northerner surrounded by the narrow standards and traditions of the Old South after he moves to Atlanta with his gentile wife, Lucille (the marvelous Lara Pulver) to work as manager of the National Pencil Factory. While not a trained singer, Knight acquits himself reasonably well on the vocals. His pleasing voice is challenged, though, by a lack of power made even more noticeable by the highly experienced, steel-lunged cast that surrounds him -- particularly Pulver, with her soaring, enticing soprano.
The rest of the cast either play multiple roles or else double up as part of the ensemble. Most notable amongst them are David St. Louis as night watchman Newt Lee, convict Jim Conley, and manservant Riley, who sets spines a-tinglin' with "A Rumblin' and a Rollin" and "Blues: Feel the Rain Fall"; Michael Berresse, who does fine work in a trinity of roles as conflicted Governor Slaton, eager reporter Britt Craig, and sympathetic Mr. Peavy; Charlotte d'Amboise as brokenhearted Mrs. Phagan and kindhearted Sally Slaton; P.J. Griffith as terrifying demagogue Tom Watson; and Curt Hansen as Mary's earnestly cheerful (and later vengeful) young suitor, Frankie Epps.
Admittedly, Parade is somewhat flawed. But it's also a resoundingly resonant show that should not be missed.