Are you secretly working away on Milgaard! The Musical? Take my advice and shelve it: Wrongful convictions might make for stirring docudramas or protest songs, but recent experience has convinced me that they just aren't the stuff of great musical theatre.
Parade, a 1998 musical written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry ( Driving Miss Daisy) and then-wunderkind composer Jason Robert Brown, is a case in point.
Getting its Canadian premiere in an ambitious co-production between Toronto's Acting Up and Studio 180 theatre companies, Parade tells the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish supervisor at a pencil factory in Atlanta who was tried and convicted of the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan in 1913.
There is plenty of racial and political intrigue to mine in this historical moment, not least of all that at the height of Jim Crow an all-white jury took the word of a black, but Southern sweeper who claimed to be Frank's accomplice over the white, but Yankee Frank.
But in Uhry and Brown's telling, and particularly in director Joel Greenberg's bland and beige production, the complexity of the situation is only briefly touched upon before the path of least narrative resistance is taken: Frank (Michael Therriault) is arrested and then prosecuted and then lynched by two-dimensional Southern, religious bigots, as much for having a college education and behaving like a Brooklyner as for being Jewish. It's a sign of the creators' simplistic politics that the African-American sweeper who likely was the true murderer (a sensational Daren A. Herbert) is a more sympathetic character than the district attorney prosecuting the case (Mark McGrinder), who here only cares about advancing his political career.
As Frank, Therriault gives a purposefully constricted performance, making his character rather audaciously unlikeable at the start - uptight, snobbish and disdainful towards what he sees as the uncivilized Southern culture he has married into. (It's an awkward aspect of the show that his prejudices turn out to be so very correct.) Frank unclenches in the second act, however, as he learns to accept the help of his wife Lucille (Tracy Michailidis). After spending the first half barely making eye contact, this married couple discover love in the face of adversity - and their final scenes finally stir up some emotion.
But it's too little human interest, too late in this overwritten musical.
Parade's shortcomings reminded me of The Scottsboro Boys, the final collaboration between Kander and Ebb which just closed on Broadway, another musical about Southern injustice eventually bogged down by its heroes' unremitting martyrdom - at a certain point, watching victims be victimized wears thin, particularly when told in song. At least Scottsboro Boys had a daring theatrical conceit, telling its tale of injustice in the taboo form of a minstrel show. In Parade, statically staged here in cramped quarters, Brown's score rarely fits with the content: For the most part, it's cold Manhattan music - intellectual and reserved - in a hot Southern setting.
This co-production features fine work from George Masswohl as an old Confederate soldier, genuine creepiness from Jeff Irving as a teenager seeking vengeance and a beautifully sung trio from three of the murdered girls' friends perjuring themselves at the trial.
But there are also parts that are miscast or confusingly doubled and a fair bit of choir practice: Actors standing in clumps, singing out. (Out, both towards the audience and of character.) Aside from a few genuinely affecting moments, I was left wondering why Leo Frank's story was ever transformed into a musical, and why Toronto audiences needed to hear his story now?
Book by Alfred Uhry
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Joel Greenberg
Starring Michael Therriault and Tracy Michailidis
At the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs in Toronto
Parade runs until Jan. 22.