BWW Review: Moonbox Productions' PARADE: Attention Must Be Paid
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, Book by Alfred Uhry, Co-Conceived and Directed on Broadway by Harold Prince; Producer, Sharman Altshuler; Director, Jason Modica; Co-Producer, Phil Tayler; Music Director, Catherine Stornetta; Associate Director/Dramaturg, Allison Choat; Choreographer, Kira Troilo; Set Design, Lindsay Genevieve Fuori; Production Stage Manager, Cesara Walters; Lighting Designer, Steve Shack; Properties Designer, Jennifer Butler; Costume Designer, Chelsea Kerl; Sound Designer, Elizabeth Cahill; Fight Choreographer, Robert Isaacson; Hair and Wig Designer, Peter Mill; Dialect Coach, Daniel Thomas Blackwell
CAST (in order of appearance): Phil Tayler, Anna Bortnick, Gable Kinsman, Brad Peloquin, Anne Sablich, Jerry Bisantz, Todd Yard, Andrew Child, Dan Prior, Angela Syrett, Lilli Jacobs, Katie Elinoff, Haley K. Clay, Yewande Odetoyinbo, Elbert Joseph, Aaron Patterson; ORCHESTRA: Catherine Stornetta, Rebecca Elaine Miller, Dan Zupan, Mindy Cimini, Priscilla Chew, Megan Riccio, Stanley Silverman, Kent Walters, Doug Lippincott
Performances through December 28 by Moonbox Productions at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.bostontheatrescene.com, www.moonboxproductions.org
As the year winds to a close, and the holiday hustle and bustle keeps us spinning our wheels, it can be a salve for the spirit and rest for the weary to sit in a darkened theater for a couple of hours. There is a plethora of seasonal fare competing for your entertainment dollars, but may I suggest something completely different from the colorful, holly jolly? A departure from the ballerinas, Christmas ghosts, and department store Santas? How about a two-time Tony Award-winning musical (1999 Best Book/Best Score) written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) and Tony Award-winner Jason Robert Brown (Songs For a New World, The Last Five Years), that will pump the blood to your heart, and push you back in your seat until the very end, when you will rise up and salute this Moonbox Productions' Parade.
There are a number of Moonbox musicals that stand out in my memory, among them Floyd Collins and Cabaret. What these two shows (that were staged approximately eight years apart) share with Parade is their leading man, Phil Tayler. Only this time around, Tayler (Leo Frank) also wears the hat of co-producer as the driving force behind convincing Moonbox Producer/Artistic Director Sharman Altshuler to put it on this season. He persuaded his friend and former classmate at Boston Conservatory, Jason Modica, to direct the show that they had first worked on together as students ten years ago. Their concept of the story taking place "in a kind of limbo between life and death" allows Tayler's character to be onstage for most of the play, observing scenes and hearing conversations that Frank would not have been privy to, substantially elevating the emotional quotient and enhancing the dramatic heft of the book.
Leo Frank is the pivotal character in the true story about a Brooklyn-born Jew living with his southern wife in Atlanta in 1913, who is wrongly accused of killing 13-year old Mary Phagan (Anna Bortnick), a girl who works in the pencil factory he manages. Its themes of anti-semitism, blaming the "other," yellow journalism, and political grandstanding speak loud and clear to our cultural moment, requiring a certain amount of intestinal fortitude from the audience. One can't help but hear echoes of "fake news," "witch hunt," and be reminded of the angry accusations and manipulations flung about by certain representatives during recent congressional hearings. The saving grace is that, although the tale being told is true, the rest of it is theater, and I daresay theater of the highest order.
Tayler's performance is, by necessity, nuanced, as he shouldn't draw too much attention when Leo is the observer, yet he is always fully engaged with the action playing out in front of him. When he is the subject of a scene, he lets us know who Leo is and the angst he suffers being way outside of his comfort zone. The relationship he shares with Haley K. Clay (making an impressive Boston professional debut) as Leo's wife Lucille progresses along a well-defined arc, being rather formal in the beginning, and evolving as he realizes her strengths and learns to trust and accept what she brings to the fight. For her part, Clay inhabits Lucille's evolution from an easygoing, genteel wife to an assertive, determined partner, and wows with the clarity and power of her beautiful soprano voice. When Clay and Tayler pair up for the eleven o'clock number ("All the Wasted Time"), their emotional urgency feels genuine and well-earned, and the song is one of many musical highlights.
Once Leo is arrested and charged, a combination of laziness and dastardliness on the part of the district attorney (Jerry Bisantz, excellent), fabrications by witnesses, zealousness for a good story by the beat reporter (Dan Prior), and blatant bigotry by a publisher (Todd Yard), result in his conviction and death sentence. However, that is not the end of the story as Lucille petitions the governor (Prior) to examine the facts more closely. After seeing how everything unfolded and picked up steam in the first act, the second act shows the unraveling of the carelessly constructed case against Leo and offers a glimmer of hope that right will win out. Anyone who has seen the show before, or who knows the history, or reads the program notes, will know how the story ends, but it is to the credit of Modica and the cast that their performances are compelling and give nothing away in advance.
Speaking of compelling, Aaron Patterson (Jim Conley) is a scene-stealer whenever he is on stage. He has the gift of an incredible voice and gets into the skin of his character. Note that he is still a junior at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee and has previously received attention for his part in the SpeakEasy Stage production of Choir Boy earlier this year. Another BOCO student making his Boston professional debut, Gable Kinsman (Frankie Epps/Young Soldier) conveys the immaturity and indignation of the flirtatious teenager Epps, and adds his strong voice to the ensemble. Prior does a great job of differentiating between his two characters, the drunken reporter who sensationalizes the story, and the governor who, somewhat reluctantly, rises to the occasion. In a trio of roles, including Leo's less-than-stellar defense attorney, Andrew Child displays great range. Rounding out the cast are Brad Peloquin (Judge Roan/Old Soldier/MacDaniel), Anne Sablich (Mrs. Phagan/Sally Slaton), Angela Syrett (Iola Stover), Lilli Jacobs (Monteen), Katie Elinoff (Essie), Yewande Odetoyinbo (Minnie McKnight), and Elbert Joseph (Newt Lee). In an era of theatrical austerity, the fact that there are sixteen actors in the ensemble and nine musicians (under the virtuosic musical direction of Catherine Stornetta) is extravagant, even if several cast members play multiple roles.
With the usual configuration of the Roberts Studio Theatre altered to allow for a wider stage, set designer Lindsay Genevieve Fuori employs several tiers and spaces for Leo's office, the Frank's home, the factory basement, and the jail, among others, and lighting designer Steve Shack further suggests time and place. Costume designer Chelsea Kerl, hair and wig designer Peter Mill, and properties designer Jennifer Butler evoke the period appropriately, and Elizebeth Cahill provides effective sound design. Kira Troilo's choreography is inventive and well-executed, and fight choreography by Robert Isaacson is realistic.
Parade premiered on Broadway in December, 1998, and closed in February, 1999, had a U.S. National Tour in 2000, and was performed in 2007 at Donmar Warehouse in the U.K. It was the Broadway debut of Brown, who was a mere 23-years old when Harold Prince hired him to compose the score (after the project was turned down by Stephen Sondheim). In the liner notes of the Original Broadway Cast Recording, Brown describes his young man's fantasy that one day he might get to work with Prince, the guy whose name was on all of his favorite albums, and that he would write a musical that would "Say Something." Mission accomplished on both fronts, and very well said by Moonbox Productions. Oh, and that suggestion I made in the lede paragraph? I'd like to change the word to urge.
Photo credit: Sharman Altshuler (Phil Tayler and Cast of Parade)