The musical “Parade” is based on an ugly anti-Semitic incident in American history, but the songs and the way they express emotion are anything but ugly.
“For a very dark [story], it’s got beautiful music,” said Craig Pettinati, director of the show for the Kensington Arts Theatre.
With a cast of 15 actors and a 10-piece orchestra, the musical is currently running to Nov. 16 at the Kensington Town Center.
“Parade” is based on the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish-American man with a degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell who married a Jewish woman from Atlanta whose family owned a pencil factory.
In 1913, police accused Frank of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old employee of the factory. Frank was convicted and spent years appealing, eventually reaching the Supreme Court.
Directed by Hal Prince, “Parade” debuted on Broadway in 1998. Librettist Alfred Uhry, who grew up in Atlanta and wrote “Driving Miss Daisy,” won a Tony award for Best Book of a Musical.
Jason Robert Brown, who wrote the music and lyrics, won a Tony for Best Original Music Score. KAT has also performed two of Brown’s other shows, “The Last Five Years” and “Songs for a New World.”
“I see it as a story about pride,” said Bobby Libby, who plays the part of Frank. “There’s the pride that the Southerners have, and he has his own sense of pride. They sense that and turn on him.”
The musical opens with a young soldier heading off to fight for the South during the Civil War, singing goodbye to the girl he loves.
“It’s so beautiful, you can’t help but be moved,” Libby said.
The scene then shifts five decades ahead to 1913, where the people of Atlanta continue to take great pride in their history and culture, participating in a parade to honor Confederate soldiers who died in the war.
Frank, who doesn’t understand the event, is viewed as an outsider, and the animosity is mutual.
“As a protagonist, he’s kind of unsympathetic,” said Libby. “He doesn’t like where he lives. He doesn’t like the people or the community.”
Frank’s wife, Lucille (Emily Zickler), tries to help him fit in, but “their relationship is strained,” said Libby, and Lucille wonders if she married the right man.
Frank, meanwhile, can’t understand how his wife can be both Jewish and culturally a Southerner.
“He’s been living in the South a few years, and he’s reacting badly to all of it,” Libby said. “He loses sight of how much he loves this woman.”
After Phagan is murdered, prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (Michael Nansel) is told by the Georgia governor to get to the bottom of the sensational case.
Initial suspicion is cast on Newt Lee, the black night watchman (Ian Anthony Coleman), but Lee is released.
Eager to get his name in the headlines, Dorsey decides to go after Frank, tapping into the community’s distrust of him.
Dorsey makes a deal with the factory janitor, Jim Conley (also played by Coleman), who testifies against Frank at the trial.
Mary’s boyfriend, Frankie Epps (Harrison Smith), also testifies, claiming that Frank had an eye for the female workers. Three factory girls testify under coercion from the prosecutor, performing a seductive dance with Frank in a fantasy sequence.
Also among the characters is Tom Watson (Brad Carnes-Stine), who writes for a right-wing newspaper, and Britt Craig (Patrick McMahan), a reporter who sees the trial as a way to make a name for himself and who promises to support Dorsey if Dorsey runs for governor.
“You see in the show how Frank was set up,” said Pettinati. “In the courtroom scene, you see the corruption and the ordeal that he went through.”
The only thing that keeps the show from descending into the depths of despair is Lucille, said Libby. The deepening connection between she and Frank is the focus of the musical.
“It’s his wife and her strength and the beauty of that relationship,” he said. “They find a deep well of love, a love which they always had.”
“It’s a very beautiful piece of theater,” said Libby.