BWW Reviews: High School Students at Act Two @ Levine Tackle Jason Robert Brown's PARADE
Act Two @ Levine has provided Washington, DC area students of all experience levels opportunities to hone their musical theatre skills and, perhaps even more important, build valuable skills such as teamwork and hard work that can serve them well into adulthood. The longstanding musical training program at the community-based Levine School of Music, under the direction of Kevin Kuchar, has never shied away from giving its cast members an opportunity to take on the most challenging of musical theatre fare as a way to learn these valuable skills in a fun and hands-on way. Act Two's Pre-Professional Program - the audition-based intensive training program for high school students - has tackled, for instance, both Rent and Next to Normal in recent years alongside of several classics of the American musical theatre. This year, the pre-professional cast members are taking on Parade, Urinetown, and Spamalot - enormously popular shows, but still very ambitious.
This past weekend, the 38-member cast and crew for Parade thoroughly demonstrated the value of such a training program. Though - wisely - as an educational experience, the focus is on the process of putting on a full production rather than end result, I do have to say that the end result was a pretty fabulous one.
Parade may have had a short-lived Broadway run in 1998-1999, but it has not been forgotten. Patrons around the country - at professional regional theatres, community theatres, and schools - continue to be exposed to Jason Robert Brown's strong and varied Tony Award-winning score and Alfred Uhry's Tony Award-winning book. A subsequent successful and 'revised' take on the material at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2007 - featuring new songs and new orchestrations for a smaller chamber-like orchestra - also perhaps renewed interest in the show.
The widespread inclusion of Parade in numerous theatres' seasons as of late has been both a blessing and a curse. If done well, Parade can be exhilarating to watch. However, if the material is not treated honestly and with integrity, the experience is not as powerful and can highlight some of the weaknesses. The story, after all, considers the plight of Leo Frank, a white Jewish man in Georgia who is accused of brutally killing Mary Phagan, a young girl who works in his factory, in the early 1900s. The investigation and trial, the subject of immense media scrutiny and strong public opinion, raises larger questions about how racial, regional, and religious prejudices play into how groups of people consider, internalize, and interpret the most tragic of human events.
No, it's not light fare, but all of the Act Two @ Levine cast members handled it beautifully and gave well-intentioned and thoughtful performances that defied their young ages under Kevin Kuchar's direction.
First and foremost was Eitan Mazia transcendent performance as Leo Frank. His beautifully trained voice - one of the strongest I've heard from a teenager - proved perfectly suited to "How Can I Call This Home?," his many duets with Audrey Rinehart (playing his wife, Lucille) such as "This is Not Over Yet" and "All the Wasted Time," as well as the tender, reflective, and heart-wrenching "Shm'a." This latter song - which Leo sings as he's subject to brutal and life-altering punishment - usually doesn't resonate with me even when sung by men who are of the age that Leo would have been. I typically don't find it believable, yet with Mazia's understated performance, I truly saw a man at peace with what was happening. It served as a nice contrast to the angry and agitated 'Leo' that we see through much of the show. Eitan, just as strong of an actor as he is singer, handled the emotional rollercoaster that Leo endures like a true professional.
As Leo's strong and determined wife Lucille, Audrey Rinehart was also inherently believable. Her emotional rendition of "You Don't Know This Man" proved to be one of the vocal highlights of the show as did the angry "Do it Alone." Unlike many young singers, the technique was equally matched with strong song interpretation choices in every case. Even when not singing, she had a quiet yet strong and natural presence about her that was very much appreciated. Together, Mazia and Rinehart had great chemistry with one another - a necessary ingredient for success in any production of Parade because of the heavy focus on how the husband and wife come closer together in the face of adversity.
Other standouts included the natural comedian Max Fowler as small time reporter Britt Craig in search of major news. A strong vocalist with a stage presence that some adults would envy, his take on "Big News" was one of the most memorable moments of the show. Like Mazia and Rinehart, he absolutely has a future in musical theatre if that's the path he chooses for himself. As Jim Conley - a man that was also under the investigation for Mary Phagan's death - Liam Allen had a standout moment with the gospel-infused "A Rumblin' and a Rollin' and "Blues: Feel the Rain Fall." I remember being hugely impressed with Liam at the recent Montgomery College production of "Lucky Stiff" and left in awe when I heard he was still a high school student. With this performance in Parade, he showed he can do everything from light, musical comedy, to more dramatic fare. He also has a strong future.
Noah Kieserman (Frankie Epps, a friend of Mary's), Bryce Gudelsky (Mary Phagan), Jhonny Maldonado (Young Soldier/the ambitious Tom Watson), Marc Pavan (Governor Slaton), and David Newman (Hugh Dorsey), as well as numerous others also made valuable contributions to the success of this production. They all made the most of their stage time and gave well-rounded performances that ranged from the light-hearted to the dramatic. Maldonado deserves special props for being able to be convincingly creepy during "Watson's Lullaby" and "Where Will You Stand When the Flood Comes?" while still singing beautifully. Kieserman and Gudelsky also deserve notice for their playful charisma on "The Picture Show," nicely incorporating strong movement with appreciable vocals and acting.
The production also came alive in the many ensemble numbers, including the ones staged at the trial and the aftermath. I do recognize with educational productions it may be necessary to expand the cast size so that everyone is included. Kuchar did this in a way that mostly did not necessarily detract from the story being told. The large ensemble used in "Where Will You Stand When the Flood Comes?" in particular made the song come alive and achieve a powerful statement.
I mostly applaud Kuchar's decision to take a little bit of a risk and use members of the ensemble to visually expose the underbelly of the early 1900s Georgia world. It didn't always pay off in every scene and at times left me a little bit perplexed, but the choice mostly worked in the trial scenes to show the inner-conflict of the jury members. They looked prim and proper, but were inwardly struggling with their dual natures and tendencies to look at others in a judgmental and rather malicious way. Whether the artistic choice was a good one overall is a matter up for debate. However, I will say that it's always nice to see a director eschew a tendency to simply recreate what's been done so many times before. This production did not come off as a copycat one.
The decision to use minimal sets, sound, and light elements was also a good one and allowed the focus to be on the students and their performances and not necessarily everything else. The small orchestra, featuring solid musical direction from Keith Tittermary, did well to highlight the strength of Brown's score and complement what was happening onstage.
Many kudos to the Act Two @ Levine team for a job well done!
Parade played at Arena Stage's Kogod Cradle at the Mead Center for American Theatre in Washington, DC from January 31 to February 2, 2014. For information on Act Two @ Levine and future performance dates for the rest of the 2013-2014 season of productions, see its website.
Photo: Eitan Mazia as Leo Frank (by Carmelita Watkinson)