If they can make a musical about a dictatorial Argentine bitch, a vengeful London barber and a rotund drag queen and his daughter fighting racism, it shouldn't be any surprise to learn that in his musical Parade, composer and lyricist Jason Michael Brown tells the true story of the only Jew ever lynched in America.
With a book by Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy and Last Night at Ballyhoo), Brown sets us down in Atlanta, Ga., in 1913. We meet the meek, highly educated Jewish Brooklyn transplant named Leo Frank, a factory manager married to the equally quiet, if tougher, Southern (and Jewish) belle Lucille.
To make a long story short, Frank is arrested for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old employee named Mary Phagan and condemned to death via a show trial. He then has his sentence commuted, only to be kidnapped from prison and lynched by a group of local citizens.
There's no point during this story when anything remotely resembling "happiness" or "justice" makes any appearance. Brown, who writes interesting if contemporary and facile pop numbers (as demonstrated in his Last Five Years and Songs for the New World), seems an odd choice to have musicalized this story.
Which is a thought I wish had occurred to someone before the show opened (and quickly closed) on Broadway in 1999.
For much of the first act of a new production from Point Park Conservatory, I tried to figure out what was keeping Brown from hitting the heights for which he was striving, and then I realized that he just doesn't have the talent. Or, perhaps, he doesn't have the talent for what he's trying to do. Some of the individual numbers are interesting, but none of them feels part of the story, the period or, really, a cohesive whole.
Brown writes without a trace of irony or nuance, and Parade plays out like a melodrama, the trial an over-the-top parody of Southern injustice, and the love story between Frank and his wife embarrassingly anachronistic, like a country-fried version of a Lifetime movie.
To be clear, given how loathsome the South remains today, I don't doubt how horrible it was back then. But Brown's version of Frank's story as a Southern "Perils of Pauline" is a disservice to him, to what he went through and, ultimately, to whatever meaning can be gleaned from it. And Uhry's book feels pasted on, with parts of Ballyhoo and Daisy studded throughout.
What Parade does offer is several roles for serious performers to shine, and fortunately this Point Park production, directed by Michael Rupert, has an embarrassment of riches. With Douglas Levine's driving musical direction, Juliana Carr, Evan Walker, Matthew Benedict, Ben Thorpe, Wesley Edwards and Justin Lonesome put a whole lot of good old-fashioned show-biz pizzazz on stage. Each takes full advantage of the breakout songs Brown has written for the characters.
It's just a shame it's in this also-ran of a musical.
Parade continues through March 22. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. 412-621-4445 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com