A potent history lesson of a musical is eloquently staged by Front Porch Theatricals.
Parade is the story of Leo Frank, a pencil-factory superintendent in Atlanta who in 1913 was falsely convicted of the murder of a 13-year-old girl who worked at his plant. Frank was a double outsider — a Brooklyn-bred Jew in the post-Reconstruction South — and this often grim but consistently engaging 1998 show forcefully pins his fate on rank provincial anti-Semitism.
Creators Alfred Uhry (book) and Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) are fueled by righteous anger, but their vision is fairly complex. Leo himself is a prickly fellow, incompletely sympathetic even in his innocence. The demonization of industry in the not-yet-New South is explored. (Victim Mary Phagan was a poor rural white whose family moved cityward for work.) While the rumor and frame-up that doomed Leo are abetted by an evil reporter, the villains in Parade include some who think they're heroes — and others fully aware of their corruption. And just when you're asking whether Leo really represents the most oppressed demographic in pre-World War I Atlanta, here comes "Rumblin' and a Rollin'," a number in which two black characters bitterly note that Frank's topical plight gets more out-of-state sympathy than their historic one.
Still, this is a show, not a seminar, and Front Porch knows it. Director Benjamin Shaw's staging is vibrant, his pace brisk. The talented cast includes Jesse Manocherian as Leo, Daina Michelle Griffith as his put-upon (but ultimately heroic) wife, Lucille, and Joe Jackson in two zesty supporting roles. And Justin Lonesome's show-stopping "That's What He Said" makes perjury criminally entertaining.
Brown's brilliant suite of songs steeped in gospel, ragtime and blues range from an elegy for the Old South ("a way of life that's pure / a truth that must endure") and a heartbreaking funeral song for murder victim Mary to the bracingly satirical "Come Up to My Office," in which Manocherian breaks character to act out some factory girls' coerced characterization of Leo as a proto-hepcat Lothario.
Parade might make you weep for humanity, but you'll still feel like applauding at the end.