Dark chapter of Jewish history revisited in ‘Parade”
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Dark chapter of Jewish history revisited in ‘Parade”

Director Rob Ashford helms Pittsburgh Playhouse production

Promotional image. (Courtesy of Point Park)
Promotional image. (Courtesy of Point Park)

Rob Ashford returns to Pittsburgh to direct the Tony Award-winning musical “Parade” as part of the 2019-2020 season of Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse.

Ashford is a Point Park University alum and a member of the original production’s cast for which he earned a Tony Award in his final Broadway role as a performer. The director is also an Emmy winner for his choreography work at the 81st Annual Academy Awards.

“Parade” is a moving look into one of the darkest corners of Jewish American history. The musical retells the 1913 trial of Leo Frank in Atlanta, Georgia. Frank was a Jewish factory manager convicted of raping and murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan. Frank appealed the decision several times, including to the United States Supreme Court, but each time the lower court’s decision was affirmed. Eventually, Gov. John M. Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence to life in prison, citing evidence not presented at the original trail.

In 1915 Frank was kidnapped from prison by a group of men and lynched in Phagan’s hometown. Despite the governor’s vow to punish those responsible, no one was ever arrested or charged. Frank was pardoned posthumously by the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles in 1986.

Frank’s trial, conviction, appeals and death garnered national media attention, inflaming anti-Semitic feelings throughout the country. Both the reformation of the defunct Klu Klux Klan and the creation of the Anti-Defamation League can be attributed to the case.

In a press release announcing the 2019-2020 season, the Playhouse called “Parade” “a powerful, bold and moving theatrical experience that offers moral lessons about the terrifying effects of prejudice that should not be forgotten.”

Artistic Director and Dean of the Conservatory of Performing Arts Steven Breese said “Parade” resonates “because the story is so powerful. When theater is powerful it reveals human suffering and joy and frailties and even the dark sides of humanity. When it does that well, it calls up in us emotions on the surface and things buried deep in our psyche. I have no doubt that Pittsburghers will find this to be particularly relevant.”

Breese explained that Ashford “has had a long association with both ‘Parade’ and Alfred Uhry, who wrote the book, and Jason Robert Brown, the lyricist and composer. It is a huge win to bring him back to Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Playhouse. He is the perfect person to direct the production. We feel very excited and lucky to have him onboard.”

Given the historical subject matter of “Parade,” new productions don’t tend to be radically different. But, as Breese points out, “Every time an artist approaches a production, they bring new ideas. There will be similarities to previous productions, of course, but knowing an artist like Rob, I’m certain he will bring new ideas and thoughts and nuances, making it worth revisiting, even if you’ve seen it before.”

“Parade” is the right musical for the Playhouse to produce now, Breese said.

“I am particularly excited about this season. It has a huge buzz about it and ‘Parade’ is a big part of that buzz. We must recognize that while this is great storytelling and great theater, and that the music is powerful and stirring and the script is engaging, it does deal with some issues that are from the darker side of humanity in some ways, but that it also recognizes the promise and love of the human spirit.

“This particular piece speaks to our society now in an important way. Injustice is at the center of it and we have to look at what we consider just and unjust and how we treat people. These things are really on the surface of society right now.”

“Parade” runs March 13-22, 2020, at the PNC Theatre at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Tickets can be purchased at pittsburghplayhouse.com/tickets. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@

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