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Parade: Another Look at the Tony-Winning Jason Robert Brown-Alfred Uhry Musical

The famed tuner makes its Philadelphia debut at the Arden Theatre Company, 15 years following its award-winning Broadway premiere. logo
Ben Dibble as Leo Frank and Rachel Camp as Essie in Arden Theatre Company's production of Parade.
(© Mark Garvin)

With a Tony Award-winning book and score by, respectively, Pulitzer Prize winner Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) and Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, The Bridges of Madison County), Parade is one of the most ambitious musicals to premiere on Broadway in recent history. It tells the story of the real-life trial of Leo Frank, a target of anti-Semitism in the South in the early 20th century, who was convicted of raping and murdering a young girl. The initial 1998 Lincoln Center Theater production featured a cast of 35, 17 musicians, and some of the darkest source material ever musicalized. Despite mixed reception — from critics and audiences who objected to the subject matter and its treatment — Parade went on a largely well-received national tour; student and amateur productions followed, but professional remounts were rare.

In 2007, Rob Ashford (a swing in the original production) directed the show in a stripped-down version with a smaller ensemble cast at London's Donmar Warehouse, where it was met with great acclaim. This production featured revisions by both Uhry and Brown, and yielded the show's second cast recording. Center Theatre Group brought Ashford's production to Los Angeles two years later. The revised script and score have since been produced professionally around the country, and it is this version that can be heard in the Arden Theatre Company's current production.

Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry
(© David Gordon)

"I have loved this show since it first premiered," said Terry Nolen, the Arden's cofounding artistic director and helmer of this production. "I find it incredibly moving. And it has such a remarkable score… The show can be both incredibly sweeping and very personal and intimate."

Nolen and designer/collaborator Jorge Cousineau begin by reading through the script together, going over every line and figuring out what happens and what it means to the story, and to them. Following this, Cousineau sketches storyboards of what the staging might look like. But it was the recording of the Donmar production — which preserves the full script and score — that helped him find his way into the story. "I started to see what it is, and how I could relate to it on a personal level. I could see myself a little bit in Leo, too. And from there, see the scenery come alive around the story." Nolen added, "I love the fact that he constantly is challenging why the musical does what it does. It means that we have to earn the way that we're bringing the story to life."

The collaborators are aiming to honor both the grand and intimate aspects of the story. Says Nolen, "We're hoping that the play can be incredibly theatrical, that there's the sense of it being an epic story, not just a story of Leo Frank or of Atlanta at this period of time, but of the resonances of this conflict, this crack in society. And yet we can get up close to this man and be sitting with him, as we see the circus happening around him. We're incorporating all of that into the visual landscape of this play. The audience will see the making of the story — there are no wings — we see both the actors and the crew driving and creating the story."

While Brown has confirmed that talks continue about bringing Parade back to New York, fans of this show will likely want to catch this production, which features a strong cast including both Philadelphia and Arden regulars and performers familiar with New York stages. "This is the production that is being created here in this moment, as we've cast these actors, and as I've talked to Jorge about it," said Nolen. "That's incredibly exciting, and it feels very much like it's being made now. We've done a lot of ambitious or slightly controversial pieces. In all cases, our audience has responded. We have a really amazing, curious audience. I think they will really embrace this piece. And be moved by this piece."

Jennie Eisenhower as Lucille Frank and Ben Dibble as Leo Frank in Arden Theatre Company's production of Parade.
(© Mark Garvin)

Parade at the Arden Theatre Company runs through November 3.