PAST ECHOES

Kee­gan Theatre’s mu­si­cal ‘Pa­rade’ is al­most like ‘Rag­time’ at Ford’s. Al­most.

The Washington Post Sunday - - THEATER - BY NEL­SON PRESSLEY nel­son.pressley@wash­post.com

The stage re­flects the times, and it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to see the 120-seat Kee­gan Theatre present the Ja­son Robert Brown-Al­fred Uhry mu­si­cal “Pa­rade” — fleet­ing on Broad­way in 1998-1999 and staged here by Ford’s Theatre in 2011 — right in sync with Ford’s lav­ish “Rag­time.”

Both are big, se­ri­ous mu­si­cals about early-20th-cen­tury Amer­i­can racism, with “Pa­rade” based in no­to­ri­ous fact and “Rag­time” adapted from E.L. Doc­torow’s vivid 1975 novel. Both hail from the mega­mu­si­cal 1990s, when shows com­peted to feel like mas­sive events phys­i­cally or emo­tion­ally (or both): The North­ern-set “Rag­time” opened at the be­gin­ning of 1998, and the South­ern “Pa­rade” de­buted at the end.

Yet the heavy the­matic lift of “Pa­rade,” about the 1915 anti-Semitic lynch­ing of Leo Frank in Ge­or­gia, is less durable than the com­pa­ra­bly epic, equally vo­cally burly “Rag­time” (so many right­eous an­thems!). The crime is out­ra­geous, but the red-faced mob is brutish and the racist rail­road­ing is rote. Not sur­pris­ingly, “Pa­rade” has never en­joyed the ac­claim of its more sus­pense­ful and nu­anced brother-in-arms.

Even so, this orig­i­nal show re­mains in­trigu­ing. It was the brain­child of the great di­rec­tor and pro­ducer Harold Prince, and it fea­tures a Tony Award-win­ning score by Brown, whose sub­se­quent mu­si­cals have in­cluded “The Last Five Years,” “The Bridges of Madi­son County” and “Hon­ey­moon in Ve­gas.” It’s the kind of noble project you keep hop­ing will some­how find the pro­duc­tion that makes it work.

It wasn’t quite con­vinc­ing at Ford’s, and the more in­ti­mate con­fines of Kee­gan’s stage don’t turn the trick, ei­ther. (Christina A. Coak­ley and Su­san Marie Rhea are its co-di­rec­tors.) The songs la­bor to rouse in­dig­na­tion, but the ef­fort doesn’t pay, and Kee­gan’s earnest, low-bud­get stag­ing, fea­tur­ing lit­tle more than broad swatches of bland light, lacks style. Syd­ney Moore’s cos­tumes ef­fi­ciently sum­mon the pe­riod, and Matthew Keenan’s set cre­ates a cer­tain scale with wooden bal­conies on ei­ther side of an open stage. In the back­ground looms an ab­stracted tree.

The show’s real vi­brancy lies in the mu­sic, of­ten sung at full vol­ume by a cast of 20. It’s nice to hear a nearly 10-piece or­ches­tra play­ing the ro­bust score, which in­cludes marches evok­ing Ge­or­gia’s not-too-dis­tant Con­fed­er­ate past and the sin­is­ter, showy “Come Up to My Of­fice,” with young, ly­ing fe­male em­ploy­ees claim­ing that Frank has sex­u­ally abused them in his pen­cil fac­tory. (Frank was ac­cused of mur­der­ing and pos­si­bly rap­ing a 13-year-old em­ployee, Mary Pha­gan.) Jake Null’s mu­si­cians aren’t un­err­ingly ex­act­ing, but the strings and horn and per­cus­sion con­vey the power-pathos cock­tail for which Brown aimed. The in­stru­ments are also a re­minder that a decade ago, this might have been at­tempted with a skele­ton crew of syn­the­siz­ers, a tin-eared ap­proach that thank­fully doesn’t seem to pass muster in Wash­ing­ton any­more.

The two leads — Michael In­no­centi as a flinty Frank and Eleanor J. Todd as his wife — are plain ter­rific. The fo­cused, busi­nesslike In­no­centi su­perbly cap­tures the anx­ious Frank’s out­sider spirit from the mo­ment this Brook­lyn Jew sings of the Ge­or­gians around him: “Th­ese peo­ple make me tense.” Todd shines, too, as Lu­cille Frank, bring­ing pas­sion and vo­cal con­trol to one of the show’s finest songs, “You Don’t Know This Man.”

The real vi­brancy of “Pa­rade” lies in the mu­sic, of­ten sung at full vol­ume by a cast of 20. It’s nice to hear a nearly 10-piece or­ches­tra play­ing the ro­bust score.

The prob­lem with “Pa­rade” is the way true events get flat­tened by the com­pressed sto­ry­telling. Was the press cyn­i­cal and cor­rupt? Prob­a­bly, but the show’s vile jour­nal­ist looks like a raw stereo­type as he car­ries all that bag­gage. The same goes for the men­ac­ing of­fi­cials press­ing not for ev­i­dence, but for a con­vic­tion, and for the sav­age mob that took the law into its own hands. “Pa­rade” re­mains as top­i­cal as “Rag­time,” and it op­er­ates in the same grand, high-minded key. Weirdly, though, its truth doesn’t hold up as well as the other show’s fiction.

CAMERON WHIT­MAN PHOTOGRAPHY

Michael In­no­centi and Eleanor Todd in Kee­gan Theatre’s pro­duc­tion of “Pa­rade.” Like “Rag­time,” now play­ing at Ford’s Theatre, “Pa­rade” is a se­ri­ous mu­si­cal that deals with Amer­i­can prej­u­dice in the early 20th cen­tury. “Pa­rade” runs through April 8.

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