This musical is about the murder of Mary Phagan and the illegal trial and persecution of Leo Frank that ensues. The show is set in Atlanta, George 50 years after the Civil War (or as the south's textbooks teach The War of Northern Aggression. Sick right?). Our main character, Leo Frank, is an outsider to the city he lives in. He is Jewish, from New York, and has a college education. There are three other things that could be more offensive to the Southern Culture.
Frank is a supervisor at a local pencil factory that employs mainly adolescent girls. On the day of the Memorial Day Parade Mary Phagan goes to get her week's pay and never comes home. Hours later it is discovered that she has been brutally murdered and left in the basement of the factory. Frank is arrested and the people of the town start to assassinate his character. A local newsman desperate to sell papers seizes the murder as a way to reboot his career and starts to run every story about Frank he can get.
The District Attorney of the state is informed that these people want blood and he must get a conviction at any cost. He is told that "it won't be good enough to hang a negro this time." The DA parades a series of witnesses that attack Frank's character even though they are heavily coached and clearly making stuff up to see their friend avenged.
I wont spoil the ending for those who haven't seen it or listened to the soundtrack, but suffice to say it doesn't have a happy Broadway ending. There is also a movie about this trial which is quite good. You can get more information about that here.
This production of Parade was Produced by Musical Theatre of Madison (MTM) a local theater company focused on letting lesser known works get a stage and up and coming actors have a place to perform. The show performs at the Bartell Theatre and runs through August 4th. I would encourage everyone to buy tickets!
What I liked:
- The ensemble for this show was very strong. In scenes where everyone was on stage there was high energy, passion, and rage when needed. They really showed the Southern mentality and culture quite well.
- The music was amazing. I could have told you that before seeing the show, but I was honestly nervous walking into the theatre. This musical is not an easy feat. I would say the level of difficultly as well as the acting and emotion needed to pull this musical off is on par with a Sondheim show. Overall the music was beautifully executed.
- Stand out performers. There Are several performers I want to pay their dues. They Are:
- Gregory Reed (Leo Frank)- Reed Did an outstanding job. His Frank was layered, deep and powerful. The biggest aspect I liked of his performance was they fact that Frank was still human. In stories like these it is easy for the subject matter to get preachy and the main character to rise to Christ-like status. Frank was still petty, short tempered, and had an ego. It made the message of the play that much more powerful.
- Alex Roller (Frankie Epps)- The love interest of Mary Phagon. Roller goes through a transformation that is incredible to watch unfold on stage. He goes from a a carefree teenager trying to score a date with the prettiest girl in town, to a rage-filled man seeking revenged for the death of his beloved. I had every hair on my body standing up as he half screamed half sung to the reporter what he wanted to do the man who murdered Mary.
- Jim Conley (Jason Atkins)- This is the character that seals Frank's fate in the courtroom. A no good swindling escaped convict who spins the tale the DA needs to prosecute Frank. Now it would be unfair to just say this is the best performance in Parade because there are so many memorable, but oh my. This performance is perfect. My imagination of Jim as I listened to this show came to life before my eyes. Conley is sleazy, funny, calculating and mean. Atkins personifies the big evil Jew with fangs the newspapers have been reporting about to sell papers. Not to mention his solo in "Blues/Feel the Rain" is by far the hardest song in the show and Atkins soars above all other performers on musical talent.
- The number "Come up to my Office" where three factory girls recount Frank's alleged sexual harassment is eerie. Even knowing the story and knowing that the three girls were lying I still wanted to jump on stage and lynch Frank myself. It was one of the best scenes in the show.
- The amount of passion, energy and rage that the ensemble radiated in "Where will You Stand When the Flood Comes?" shook the house. The cast was out for blood and it was amazing. This was by far my favorite scene of the show.
Now that I have sung Parade's praises lets get into what didn't work for me:
- The lighting design left a lot to be desired. I realize the simplicity of the lighting might have had to do with budget concerns or the physical space itself, but it was still disappointing. As I watched this show in my head I imagined those red hills of Georgia turning blood red as the cast jumps into "Where will You Stand When the Flood Comes?"
- The set was simplistic and it work well for the space and again I assume the simplicity was mainly about budgetary concerns. With literally one set piece on stage the entire time without it rotating or adapting the the stage picture did grow to have a monotonous tone.
- I am going to single out some performances that left some to be desired. These are not personal attacks on the talents of the performers, but more critiques of the direction, acting choices and casting decisions. I have seen most of these performers' work before and have even been in shows with a few. I respect everyone onstage and believe they have true talent and skill.
- Mary Phagon (Roberta Riportella)- Mrs. Phagon has the most heart-wrenching song in this show. When I heard it for the first time it literally made me cry. I was excited, to say the least, when I could sense Mrs. Phagon's testimony was coming. Riportella did not bring the gusto and emotional depth necessary to pull this song off. On top of that she was struggling with singing in a thick Georgian accent which caused her to waver in and out of pitch. It was painful to hear my favorite song, but not painful for the right reasons.
- Judge Roan (Edward Marion)- I got the sense that Mr. Marion had a strong history of character parts and comedic roles. His physicality with talking out of the side of his mouth and having very animated eyebrows was impressive. It was not what the part called for though. Worse than that he didn't seem to be a really big singer. He frequently sang-talked and was out of key.
- Britt Craig (Adam Aufderhaar). It is hard to put my personal biases away. Brit is my favorite character and a dream role for me. Suffice to say Aufderhaar got a higher level of scrutiny with his acting choices. Aufderhaar did not bring the level of charisma or energy needed to fill this role. Craig is a character that has it up to his neck in dirt. Craig should be a Harold Hill. Someone so good at being sleazy that you can't help but root for him.
- My previous love for Britt Craig already stated, I was more than horrified to see that his big number had been cut. Tonally this show is pretty much hard punches and downers. "Big News" provides a much needed lighter tone and funny to balance out the tragedy to come.
- "The Glory" Should not exist. There I said it. In fact it doesn't exist on my Broadway Cast Recording. Not only does it make no sense that the DA and Judge just stop to fish for awhile, while the Governor reopens the most contested murder trial in Atlanta's history, but it completely throws off the pacing of the show.
- Leo needs to hang. As I looked at that set I instantly saw how the upper level doubled as a hangman's scaffold and a podium for governor speeches. The horror of seeing an innocent human being dangling from that height would have driven the evilness of the whole case the last few inches it needed. I don't know if it was budget or audience discretion but the whole point of the play is to make us uneasy.
This review got really long so I won't say a lot. As we live in a more and more partisan society I think the themes of North vs. South, Liberal vs. Conservative, Educated vs. ignorant ring just as true today. There are lesson we can take from this show and avoid repeating lessons from the past. This play deals with stereotypes a lot too. In this plays the Jews and the blacks are the oppresses and mis-characterized peoples. We can make very easy parallels to the LGBT community and Latinos. Our country needs to stop fearing others because they are different and accept that we are a country of immigrants and multiple cultures. In this play the hard-right fridge goes for blood and elects the hero that won't compromise. This same kind of fringe is expressed in the Tea Party as well as the complete crucifixion for leaders that compromise.