BWW Review: Arizona Regional Theatre Presents PARADE
On August 17th, 1915, Leo Max Frank was lynched in Marietta, Georgia. Convicted of the murder of Mary Phagan, a thirteen year old girl in the employ of his pencil factory, Frank's real crime was that he was Jewish, a stranger in a strange land, a transplant from Brooklyn who joined his Southern-bred wife Lucille to set up business in Atlanta, a man ultimately shattered by the hammer of injustice. Convicted and sentenced to hang based on false witness. His sentence commuted to life when the travesty of his trial was revealed. Pardoned posthumously. But no less victimized by the hate-filled frenzy of vigilantes who dragged him to his death.
A story of this gravitas might seem a hard fit for a musical. Harold Prince (the giant of Broadway and reaper of Tonys, whose passing last week we mourn) was of another mind when he engaged Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) to write the book and Jason Robert Brown (The Bridges of Madison County) to compose the music and lyrics for PARADE. Prince got it right: By whatever measure, PARADE is a work of conscience ~ an exposition of the brutal consequences of unbridled bigotry and justice gone awry.
As the lights go up in Arizona Regional Theatre's staging of PARADE, directed by Phillip Fazio, a hanging tree looms over the bare stage. Nothing fancy, just ominous, an inanimate object to which the voices of the Old South (Michael Shauble) and new (D. Scott Withers) sing nostalgically about a time that should have been long forgotten but lingers wistfully in their hearts. Brown's distinctive sound resonates in what amount to soaring anthems about the rebel homeland ~ The Old Red Hills of Home and Dream of Atlanta.
These aspirational hymns stand in marked contrast to the sense of displacement and alienation that Leo (Seth Tucker) expresses in How Can I Call This Home? Here is a man "trapped inside the land that time forgot," "trapped beside a wife who would prefer that I said Howdy not Shalom," trapped in a place that is "surreal."
These opening sequences are Brown's incisive way of setting the tone for the contradictions of culture that permeate this play and for the trial of morality before which all parties are accountable. Through melody and words, Brown juxtaposes two worlds of conscience and consciousness that are so diametrically opposed as to be disturbing to our modern sensibilities. We have seen enough of these disparities in our own time. Indeed, Brown has put the Old South and its remnants in the dock to await the audience's judgment. So it is that the music and lyrics of Jason Robert Brown are the stars of the show ~ and there is not a voice among this immensely talented cast that does not do justice to them.
For all the grief and tragedy that befalls Leo the victim ~ accused of killing Mary Phagan (Jaelyn Brown) ~ there is little in the performance that arouses a deep connection with Leo the man. Tucker, the master of a pitch perfect and sonorous voice, presents a stoic and private man ~ a rather unremarkable man who attends to his business with frugality and discipline and to his wife Lucille (Mary Ott) with a formality that was common to the time. What may be missing in the portrayal is that irritability and contempt for his accusers that worked against him in his trial. We witness instead a quieter, gentler, more self-contained man, riddled with confusion and despair about the inevitable. The saving grace of Leo's ordeal is embodied in the evolving relationship with his wife Lucille, who rises heroically to his defense. It is a love affair whose potential will be unfulfilled.
In the end, we are more outraged, rightly so, by the abrasive and strident voices of those that perpetrated the injustice ~ Hugh Dorsey (Jesse Berger), an ambitious but mediocre prosecutor; Britt Craig (Teddy Ladley), a small time reporter hungry for a career-making scoop; Tom Watson (Shauble) the unrelenting right wing writer for whom Leo's conviction is a crusade; and Mary's vengeful boyfriend Frankie Epps (Charlie Rabago). Each feeds the fire and frenzy.
Angry and disappointed, too, by the corrupted testimony of the factory janitor Jim Conley (Pierre Brookins) and Mary's co-workers (Amanda Glenn, Kathlynn Rodin, Savoy Antoinette).
And then there's Newt Lee (Loren Battieste), the night watchman who discovered Mary's body ~ the first suspect whose excuses turned the cops' attention to Leo. And, he, whom many believe may have actually committed the crime.
The festivity of the celebrants of injustice is at odds with the inner darkness of PARADE's theme. So much light pervades the show when shades of darkness might be more suitable to convey the ugly and haunting truths of a culture rooted in sin and a sin rooted in a poisoned culture.
The case of Leo Frank is not closed. In early May of this year, the District Attorney of Fulton County, Georgia, announced the creation of a panel to investigate the case against Frank. For the time being, the verdict is in the hands of the audience.
PARADE runs through August 18th in the 3rd Street Theater at the Phoenix Center for the Arts.
Poster credit to Arizona Regional Theatre
Arizona Regional Theatre ~ https://www.arizonaregionaltheatre.org/ ~ 602-698-8668 ~ 3rd Street Theater at the Phoenix Center for the Arts ~ a??1202 N. 3rd Street, Phoenix, AZ