BWW Reviews: 3-D Theatricals' Magnificent PARADE
Parade/book by Alfred Uhry/music & lyrics by Jason Robert Brown/directed by T.J. Dawson/Plummer Auditorium, Fullerton/through May 26
In 1998 when Jason Robert Brown won a Tony Award for the score of this unusually provocative musical Parade, the opulent Broadway production closed to critical acclaim, but due to excessive costs, the show remained inaccessible until the Donmar Warehouse resurrected it and produced a tight - minus the frills - mounting at the Mark Taper Forum in 2009. 3-D Theatricals, who are becoming increasingly known for their superlative skill with producing big musicals, have decided to put back many of the frills of the original and double the cast to its original size - 36, in order to enhance and give the musical the big, full-voiced chorus sound it deserves. And, in my mind, this bigger hybrid version surpasses the Taper's for its grande musical elegance and the presence of a perfectly cast lead actor in the role of Leo Frank, Jeff Skowron.
Most remarkable about Parade is The Combined brilliance of the book and music in capturing the in depth texture/mood of every emotion: fear, hope, pain, joy. In Atlanta, Georgia, circa 1913 a memorial day parade symbolizes celebration, but underneath a truly artificial sense of freedom there lies festering something undeniably evil that is destined to explode. Frank and wife Lucille (Caitlin Humphreys) are at odds in their marriage. He's a Northern Jew; she a Southern Jew. He feels the great gap that exists between them. Guilty or not guilty of the murder of Mary Phagan - a crime of which he is accused, tried and convicted - he remains, in every social encounter, the constant outsider. Comparisons will be made to Ragtime because of the time period in which both musicals take place, but Ragtime concerns itself more deeply with the black experience. It becomes quite obvious that in Parade's perspective of the deep South, not only blacks are victims, but anyone who does not fit into Atlanta's manufactured world of pretentious perfection. If the Ku Klux Klan are not lynching blacks, then they go after Jews, perverts, sodomites or anyone else that veers even 10 degrees away from their cockeyed sense of Christian morality. Post Civil War changes may be in effect, but bad habits die hard.
In a work of such complex proportions, the staging must be fluid and clear. T.J. Dawson has directed with ultimate precision, as the entire Plummer auditorium stage is utilized to grande advantage. The ensemble of actors is superb with Skowron magnificently centered as Leo Frank. We never really know this complicated man, and Skowron keeps us guessing. The only thing we feel for sure is his great love for his wife, which blossoms in Act II when he realizes just how much she has done to try to get him acquitted. Humphreys is sheer joy as the brave Lucille, never giving up in the face of defeat. Her singing voice is lush and beautiful. Rufus Bonds, Jr. makes a riveting statement of unwavering determination as Jim Conley whose performance of "Blues: Feel the Rain Fall" is a vibrant study of just how a triple threat can take a number and make it reverberate throughout the house. Norman Large is also admirable as prosecuting attorney Hugh Dorsey, as are Robert Yacko as the clean-living Governor Slaton, Gordon Goodman in such fine voice as bible thumping Tom Watson, E.E. Bell as weak defense attorney Luther Rosser, Zachary Ford as reporter Britt Craig whose "Real Big News", put back into the show for this version, gives him a chance to show a delightfully dextrous versatility.
Thunderous praise as well to Leslie Stevens as loyal Mrs. Slaton, Jeanette Dawson as the grieving Mrs. Phagan, Harrison White so good in one scene as victimized security guard Newt Lee, Jordan Lamoureux as Frankie and Valerie Rose Lohman as Mary and to the other 23 members of the outstanding ensemble, who, as the hypocritical community, add so much more substance to the courtroom and parade scenes, lacking in the trimmed-down Taper production. T. R. Knight played Leo Frank then, and as good a performance as he gave, he was certainly cast against type. Jeff Skowron fits the bill here to a tee. The picnic scene with Skowron and Humphreys remains one of the most touching and heartfelt scenes ever written for the musical stage. Taking liberty with the manner in which Frank meets his maker may not be complete fact, but it does add great dramatic intent to the story and shows what indeed could very well have happened under the unrelenting power of this mockery of a judicial system that represented Atlanta at the time.