BWW Review: Keegan Theatre Presents Masterful PARADE, A Must See Production
The 1998 production of PARADE lasted a scant 123 showings in 1998 to 1999 between previews and performances. Critics were divided over the musical's merits and audiences didn't flock to the show, directed by the legendary Harold Prince. Yet at awards time, the Tony Awards and Drama Desks recognized PARADE with more than 20 nominations., winning some, including Tony's for Jason Robert Brown's score and lyrics, and Alfred Uhry's book. I, for one, was a devotee of this musical upon first hearing the score.
The following years have been much better to Brown and Uhry's musicalization of the infamous Leo Frank case, surrounding the murder of 13 year old Mary Phagan in Marietta, Georgia in 1913. Found brutalized and dead in the pencil factory in which she worked, Phagan became an immediate cause celebre. Almost immediately, factory superintendent Leo Frank was under suspicion and under arrest. The trial rocked the Southland. Frank was convicted and sentenced to death. The governor ended up commuting Frank's death sentence to life in prison, but to no avail. He was taken from jail and strung up by an angry and proud group of white Georgia citizens. A mistrial of justice - the case against Frank was completely circumstantial - coupled with the volatile atmosphere that turned against the Jewish outsider provides Uhry and Brown with plenty of material for a stirring and heartbreaking musical.
Looking at the show as a work in progress, the collaborators continued to work revising the book and score, particularly the 2009 London production. Reducing the original large orchestra to a nine piece ensemble, along with new material provide a leaner yet stronger musical. Among the other revisions I noticed were new portions to the score, and a stronger reference to the practice of lynching in the Deep South - usually involving people of color - foreshadowing Frank's ultimate fate.
Which brings us to Washington DC's Keegan Theatre and a masterful production of
Brown and Uhry's work, using the revised version of the musical. Co-directed with precision by Christina A. Coakley and Susan Marie Rhea, Keegan's PARADE keeps the staging simple and imaginative, cutting away clutter and using only the barest of props and scenic elements to help the story unfold. A wooden plank and two stylized blocks transform from prison bed to a child's coffin, for example. Coakley and Rhea's open staging on Matthew Keenan's practical set helps move the musical along cinematically, aided by evocative lighting by Colin Dieck. The scenic design is dominated by an impressionistic tree that rises to the ceiling. The flow of the production and the use of the flexible ensemble was a wonder to watch, seeing one scene blend seamlessly into another.
No one who has seen previous Keegan musicals, such as HAIR, CABARET, or AMERICAN IDIOT could be surprised by the quality of this rendering of PARADE; I fully expect this production to be recognized multiple times when the next round of Helen Hayes Awards comes around.
Among the other reasons making this show a must see production is the cast, lead by Keegan company member Michael Innocenti as Leo, a tour de force performance. Idiosyncratic, aloof, high-strung, and a stranger in a strange land - Innocenti's portrayal of Frank is like watching a masterclass of acting. Under Coakley and Rhea's keen eye for detail, Innocenti's Leo is a troubled soul laid bare, and a man as complex as any of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. His strong and unique voice serves the character well when he confesses his feeling of being out of place in Marietta ("How Can I Call This Home?") and in his address to the kangaroo court ("It's Hard to Speak My Heart").
Matching Innocenti as Leo is the stunning Eleanor Todd as his devoted wife Lucille. Part of Atlanta society, Lucille is Southern to the core which is in stark contrast to her Yiddish-spouting and Yankee husband. Bringing to mind a Georgia-born Gibson girl, Todd brings effortless elegance and long-suffering patience to her portrayal of Lucille, the ultimate example of standing by her man. The chemistry between Todd and Innocenti as the troubled spouses is palpable - from the brittle early days of the before the trial all the way to their final rendez vous, which includes one of Brown's most romantic (and heartbreaking) songs "All the Wasted Time." Lucille also proves her worth to Leo, never giving up trying to have his case re-examined.
But it is Todd's warm, supple and expressive voice that seals the deal. Wrapping her formidable instrument around Brown's music and lyrics in such songs as Lucille's defense of Leo ("You Don't Know This Man"), or her searing "Do It Alone," Todd brings lyrical life to Lucille's plight. This is a leading lady to watch for her future ascent but you can see her in PARADE right now.
With nary a weak link, this musical tragedy comes to life ably supported by an ensemble to strong performers. The doomed innocent Mary Phagan is played with simplicity and sweetness by Cassie Cope. As Mary's would be boyfriend (and her ultimate avenger) Frankie, Rickie Drummond sings with power and raw emotion. Others affected by Mary's murder - her mother and her peers - are effectively played by Ava Silva (Mrs. Phagan), Molly Janiga (Iola), Hillary Thelin (Monteen), and Retta Laumann (Essie).
Timothy Hayes Lynch brings charming authority to Georgia's Governor Jack Slaton who becomes Lucille's ally in trying to clear Leo's name. As Slaton's sharp-tongued Southern Belle wife, Jennifer Lyons Pagnard is delightful. Lead prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, is portrayed with complexity by James Finley, skating a fine line between class and opportunist. Pro-white, anti-everyone-else (especially the Jews) zealot Tom Watson makes a strong impression with Chad Wheeler's performance. Possessing a giant voice and personality to match, Harrison Smith fills up the stage as both the young Confederate soldier who opens the show with the rousing anthem "The Red Hills of Georgia" and as the scoop-hungry reporter Britt Craig.
In a world of white privilege where a Jewish caucasian is reviled and railroaded, people of color hold a unique but not surprising place in the PARADE narrative. As laborers and domestics, the black characters observe their white bosses and superiors and participate in the story in powerful ways. While carrying out their menial tasks as assigned, the black members of the company sing "A Rumblin' and a Rollin'" commenting on the situation surrounding them. "They're comin', they're comin' now, yessirree! Cause a white man gonna get hung, you see. There's a black man swingin' in ev'ry tree But they don't never pay attention!" This number is sung with knowing power by Carl Williams (Riley), Ashley K. Nicholas (Angela), Patrick M. Doneghy (Newt), and Malcolm Lee (Jim Conley). Speaking of Jim Conley, Lee plays the pivotal role of factory janitor and star witness in Frank's trial to a tee. Possessing a soulful roar of a voice, Lee shows all the nuances of a proud black man who feels empowered by his status in the trial, even from his lowly state as an ex-convict. Lee's renditions of Conley's testimony ("That's What He Said") and his bluesy showstopper (and possible confession of guilt) "Feel the Rain Fall" are highlights in a show filled with sterling moments.
The reduction in the orchestra from the original Broadway production loses nothing in translation to a nine member ensemble. Jake Null provides adroit musical direction that serves Brown's moving score well.
PARADE may not be what some would call a "feel good musical" but it is a fine example of how musical theatre can take a true story, one with tragic overtones, and provide a cathartic dramatic experience. Keegan Theatre's production deserves to be seen and heard - just like the story of Mary Phagan and Leo Frank deserves to live on, more than 100 years after the original incidents.
Follow Jeff Walker on Twitter - @jeffwalker66
Running time: 2 hours,40 minutes - 1 intermission.
PARADE at Keegan Theatre runs March 11 to April 15, 2017. Thu-Sat at 7:30 pm; Sun at 3:00 pm. For more information or tickets, click HERE
Per the Keegan website: "There will be no late seating for this production."
Box Office: 202.265.3767
Keegan Theatre - 1742 Church Street NW, Washington, DC 20036
In the Dupont Circle neighborhood, between 17th & 18th and P & Q Streets, NW
By Metro: Travel to the Dupont Circle station on the Red Line.
Photo Credit: Cameron Whitman Photography / Keegan