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PARADE: Impressive, Hard to Fully Access

by | Mar 25, 2024 | Review | 0 comments

There is so much to love in this production — and it left me strangely unmoved.

The 1998 musical Parade is based on the real-life story of Leo Frank, the Jewish supervisor of a pencil-making factory in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1913, he was accused of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old girl who worked at the factory.

It might be a bit of a spoiler to know too much about the history so, if you want to stay completely open to the narrative, read no further.

As the musical tells it, Frank was victimized by a confluence of factors: a population driven by the desire for revenge for the murder was further inflamed by anti-Semitism and provoked by irresponsible media and political opportunists. Based on circumstantial, hysterical, and dishonest evidence, Frank was convicted of the murder. There are subsequent twists in the historical events — and the musical’s second act.

For this Raincity Theatre production, director Chris Adams has assembled a stellar cast. Warren Kimmel brings his familiar gravitas to the role of the flamboyant — and sleazy — prosecutor Hugh Dorsey. Musically, his tone is rich and his interpretive choices impeccable. Cast as Newt Lee, the night watchman at the factory and an early suspect, Ivy Charles makes a scene in which Newt is interrogated the most harrowing of the evening. Double-cast as the reporter Britt Craig and Georgia Governor John Slaton, Tainui Kuru is always responsive, his work flawlessly crisp. And Jennie Neumann brings a persuasive combination of stillness and depth to her work as both the governor’s wife, Sally Slaton, and Mary Phagan’s mother, Frances.

For me, the real revelation of this production is Miranda MacDougall’s work as Leo’s wife, Lucille. If you want to tap into the heart of this story, watch her. As written by Alfred Uhry, the book doesn’t leave a lot of room for uncertainty about Leo’s guilt or innocence. But, if a production is going to maintain maximum engagement, I suspect it needs to lean into the degree of doubt the book does allow; as MacDougall’s Lucille listens to the damning testimony at her husband’s trial, you can see the struggle between her loyalty and the horror playing out within her. Off the top of the show, Leo is dismissive of his wife and MacDougall makes the most of Lucille’s song, “Do It Alone”, in which she reacts to his disdain for her attempts to help. “No, do it alone, Leo,” she sings. “Now there’s the right idea:/Make me feel as useless as you always have.” MacDougall’s delivery of those lyrics hit me where I live.

For his part, Leo is a complicated character, hard to like, and that’s potentially a good thing. Near the top of the show, he expresses his own bigotry: referring to his southern neighbours, he sings, “How can I call this home?/These men belong in zoos.” As a Jew living in the South, he is right to be alert, of course. And, as I see it, Leo’s underlying vulnerability is key to both his character and our emotional investment in his story.

Josh Epstein is playing Leo in this production, and his well-honed chops are on full display. Musically, he’s terrifically assured. The razzamatazz number “Come Up to My Office” showcases his cabaret skills. And, in his characterization, he doesn’t shy away from Leo’s chilliness. But he doesn’t entirely release it either. Leo’s recognition of Lucille’s worthiness is the emotional tipping point of the show, the moment at which he finally relaxes his hypervigilance and let’s somebody help him. He transforms. But, in Epstein’s performance, I didn’t feel the profundity of the change; to me, it looked like Leo had had a new and interesting idea as opposed to a potentially lifesaving — and enormously relieving — revelation. For the show to really work, I suspect, it would help to have a sense of Leo’s vulnerability from the beginning — and to be able to follow it all the way through. Near the end of Act 2, Leo faces a terrifying situation, an empty-your-bowels kind of threat, but, in this production, Epstein’s Leo remains relatively sanguine, and I experienced little impact.

All that said, my hesitation about Epstein’s performance must be understood in the context of the musical’s flaws. In one crucial way, it’s simplistic: Act 1 of Parade is a non-stop excoriation of the worst of Southern culture. I’m not saying that judgment isn’t justified in many ways; I’m saying the repetition of the righteous-us-against-bigoted-them dynamic lacks nuance, and it turns the narrative into an unrelieved march in one predetermined direction. There is a welcome thematic variation in the song “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’”, in which a trio of Black characters sing about how Leo’s case is garnering national attention because he’s white: “They gonna yell, “Set that man free!”/Well, they sure ain’t talkin’ ’bout me.” But even that song is politically instructive as opposed to hopeful so, in that sense, the march continues.

Because Act 2 is more complicated in its push and pull, it’s much more satisfying.

Throughout, one of the great pleasures of this production is that, in the intimacy of the venue, 191 Alexander Street, you can hear individual voices, including in the big choral numbers like “The Old Red Hills of Home”. Under Sean Baynton’s musical direction and Dawn Pemberton’s vocal direction, this cast is mostly so strong that hearing them with this degree of clarity is a thrill.

Nicol Spinola’s choreography is energizing in its foot stomps and inventive in its devices — including the choreographic use of newspapers.

The very handsome costumes are by Christina Sinosich.

The musical’s themes of revenge, political opportunism, and anti-Semitism are undeniably relevant.

There’s a lot to admire. I just wish I’d felt Leo’s tragedy more deeply.

PARADE Book by Alfred Uhry. Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Co-conceived and directed on Broadway by Harold Prince. Directed by Chris Adams. On Saturday, March 23. A Raincity Theatre production playing at 191 Alexander Street until April 13. Tickets

PHOTO CREDIT: Warren Kimmel as Hugh Dorsey and Ivy Charles as Newt Lee (Photo by Nicol Spinola)

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