Monday, October 17, 2011

REVIEW: Parade

Review of the Saturday, October 15 matinee performance.  At Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.  2 hours, 45 minutes.  Starring Euan Morton, Jenny Fellner, Stephen F. Schmidt, James Konicek, Will Gartshore, Chris Sizemore, Kevin McAllister, Kellee Knighten Hough, Matthew John Kacergis and Lauren Williams.  Book by Alfred Uhry.  Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.  Musical Direction by Steven Landau.  Choreography by Karma Kamp.  Direction by Stephen Rayne.  Through October 30, 2011.

Grade: B- 

In searching for photos of the current production of Parade at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. to go along with this review, I came across many photos of Leo Frank, the subject of this musical by Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown.  One of those photos shows Mr. Frank dangling from a tree while various citizens of Marietta, Georgia pose smiling beneath his feet.  I came upon a postcard version of the photo, reproduced hundreds of times and sent by the citizenry to friends and relatives around the country, as if the senders had been vacationing at the beach.  I felt literally nauseous and sat here for a few moments teary and pondering the cruelty of man against fellow man.  Sadly, as much as I wanted to, I did not feel nearly that much about the very same events that led to that photographed moment as portrayed in the show.

The Ford's Theatre Company of Parade

Not that it is any fault of the nearly flawless production helmed by Steven Landau (musical direction), Karma Kamp (choreography) and Stephen Rayne (direction).  It is indeed rare to see such a fully realized, beautifully produced show, with a perfect cast and truly breathtaking sound.  One cannot imagine that the Broadway production was any better.  No, this production is an exercise in artistry and precision.  Under Landau's baton, the orchestra is simply perfection, playing Brown's score to the hilt.  Ms. Kamp's dancing is evocative of the period without being intrusive, and her other bits of musical staging bring to mind the much larger scale of things that is intended, despite the constraints of a limited cast size.  It is amazing how about a dozen people and a variety of patriotic flags can be configured and reconfigured to make you see a large parade.  And Mr. Rayne's highly stylized direction tells the story in swift, almost constantly moving scenes.  Even when the show pauses for those quiet and not so quiet, but very important moments, there is a vitality and precision.  The blocking is such that it heightens tension and amplifies what we are seeing, particularly in act two, when things reach their tragic conclusion.

The design elements are of equally high quality.  Tony Cisek's scenic design covers the entire expanse of the Ford's Theatre playing space and is a full two stories tall.  Evocative of the South (Marietta, Georgia, specifically) at a crossroads, the stage is adorned with giant Georgian columns, stately, but showing the burn scars of the Civil War, and tall columns and archways made of precisely laid bricks and decorated with a wrought iron staircase and railings suggesting the new industrial age.  The space is largely uncluttered and, in combination with Pat Collins' lighting, creates an ever-changing parade of scenes and moods.  Costume designer Wade Laboissonniere's garments are elegant, period-perfect, and in pristine condition.  Throughout, the staging and stage pictures of this production are pleasing to look at, and make the production interesting to watch.  I was never bored.

(Front) James Konicek and Kevin McAllister
Most of the cast of twenty actors play multiple roles, and almost to a person, I can honestly say that their characterizations were so rich that the result is the very best scenario: twenty actors felt like forty or more.  The lone exception for me would be that two actors look remarkably similar, and at one point, I thought that one of them played both reporters.  I'd probably call that an odd coincidence of casting more than anything.

Interestingly, in a show that so depends on race as a major plot point, there are only two African-American actors in the cast (and two understudies).  I have to give both of them (Kevin McAllister and Kellee Knighton Hough) much credit and admiration for their remarkable talents and efforts.  Ms. Hough is so different in her two roles, that at intermission I had to look up who played who and was amazed that it was actually the same person!  Mr. McAllister, is chameleon-like in his stand-out roles as Newt Lee, a night watchman, Jim Conley, a co-suspect in the murder of Mary Phagan, and Riley, a servant to the Governor of Georgia.  His voice is amazing and he is so completely intense, particularly when the Governor confronts Conley about his prior testimony.  McAllister is chilling and fierce.

As the Governor, Stephen F. Schmidt has a lot to work with in terms of stage time and character, and he makes the most of it. He makes a somewhat complicated journey from outright enemy to reluctant friend of the Franks.  It is because Mr. Schmidt plots this course so carefully and with such believability, that his final speech, commuting Frank's death sentence to life in prison and effectively ending his own political career, is completely convincing.  The character of Hugh Dorsey, solicitor general with an eye for the governor's office, is a complex one in that he is "the bad guy" gunning for Leo Frank.  And he does so with a vengeance.  But when he is pretty much forced into an allegiance with newspaperman and political activist/white supremacist, Tom Watson, Dorsey himself begins to have doubts and is pulled in both directions.  Complex to be sure, both roles are played perfectly by James Konicek and Will Gartshore, respectively.  They bring some much needed tension.

The Factory Girls and the Governor of Georgia
Several other actors stand out for doing fine work that helps to tell this fact-laden story.  Among them are Bligh Voth, Erin Driscoll and Carolyn Agan as the pencil factory workers that accuse Leo of being inappropriate with them.  Lauren Williams makes a sweet impression as the victim, Mary Phagan, and Matthew John Kacergis does great work as her would-be suitor.  He also gets to sing the lion's share of the stirring opening number.  Finally, Sandy Bainum holds her own with a smartness as the Governor's wife, Sally.

Euan Morton and Jenny Fellner as Leo and Lucille Frank

Of course, one can only imagine what an even more difficult show Parade would be with weak or poorly cast central characters, Leo and Lucille Frank.  This production has no such worries.  Euan Morton commands the stage with remarkable presence, especially considering that he plays an inherently unlikeable, small, and purposely quiet man.  But Morton takes those characteristics and adds a cool detachment that covers an intense focus, spent solely on righting the wrongs against him, and a determination to keep his life together and on track from behind prison walls.  He sings beautifully - as if the score was written for him.  Jenny Fellner does the absolutely best she can with a character that is somewhat underwritten.  Clearly, Lucille is in a panic as her husband is railroaded and convicted, but the actress is never really given the chance to unleash that pent up frustration, pain and fear.  When, by force of the plot, she becomes more active in act two, we get to see a little bit of what could have been in act one.  It is not the actress' fault - she is a terrific singer and really does the best she can with what she has to work with.  Perhaps the moment when Leo and Lucille share a late second act prison picnic reveals the central problem with allowing the couple to fully connect with each other and the audience.  Unfortunately, for all concerned, it is too little too late.  You can almost feel the catharsis between the actors and a bit of relief in the audience when they finally get to say, "I love you" to each other. Something along these lines earlier might have endeared them to us emotionally.

No one wants to see what happens next - a kidnapping and torturous lynching.  But you'd expect to feel something when it does.  Instead, I watched those final moments (including a several feet off the ground, swinging, writhing and gasping Morton) with a sense of frustration and a bizarre feeling of coldness.  And maybe a twinge of shame for not feeling what I should be.  But I was never moved, either.  Everything in front of me should have outraged my sense of justice, lit a fire under my desire to champion those who cannot champion themselves, and saddened me for the tragic loss brought about through lies, forced confessions and maddening bigotry.  I certainly recognized it, waiting for my pulse to race, my fists to ball up and the tears to form.  Then questioning where those feelings were, I came to the realization that all I felt was a guilty detachment.

And I lay the faults with the show squarely at the feet of the creators of Parade: Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry.  Brown's Tony-winning score, as a separate work is terrific, one of the better scores of the 1990's.  It has complex themes, character-driven motifs, and clever reprises of strains of songs that give the whole thing a coherence.  His opening number, "The Old Red Hills of Home" is a rousing anthem, there are catchy character songs like the ironic bounciness of "The Picture Show" a duet for Mary Phagan and her suitor, and the biting content of the servants' take on the situation in "A Rumblin' and a Rollin'" sung to an infectious beat.  And there is the haunting confession and creepy reenactment of the girls' testimony, "Come Up to My Office," the chilling chain gang infused aria for Jim Conley, "Feel the Rain", and the call-to-bloody-arms, "Where Will You Stand When the Flood Comes?".  And the final duet between Leo and Lucille, "All the Wasted Time," is beautifully sung. But you'd think Brown would have had a lot more impact and emotion in the more than 25 songs in the show as a whole, not a separate score.  The last two numbers I mentioned are symptomatic of the score's problem.  Both of them were much more effective upon reflection of what happens after them.  Shouldn't the call-to-arms arouse passions and fears as it is being sung, and shouldn't the sorrow of that duet have been felt as they finally come together instead of being sad because they never get the chance to make it up to each other?

"All the Wasted Time"
Jenny Fellner and Euan Morton
What is most shocking is that Uhry's book is not new territory for this Pulitzer Prize winning playwright; his most famous works, Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night of Ballyhoo are deeply emotional looks at Jewish and racial tensions in the deep South.  One would think the subject matter here would allow him to give us his most powerful words on the topic.  Instead, the book and the score work together to chronicle the events leading up to, during and after the murder of Mary Phagan and the Leo Frank trial, kidnapping and lynching.  Just look at those key words in that last sentence: "murder," "trial," "kidnapping," and "lynching."  Can you think of more emotionally laden words together?  And yet, like the main character, all of the feeling is hidden away.  Not a good thing for the character as it turns out, but certainly even less of a good thing for a musical.  With so many characters and a TON of plot, maybe it shouldn't be so shocking that a lot of the show plays like a museum reenactment.  All of the points are right on, well executed and maddeningly icy.

As Mike and I left the Ford's Theatre, the spectre of Abraham looming large, we were both bewildered.  How could such an excellent production leave us so cold?  Why did Brown and Uhry want to tell this story?  What is their point, their meaning beyond the story?  With that opening number, one suspects that they did have larger ideas in mind, but it never goes anywhere, except maybe to say that in the South, the past is so glorious that nothing will ever really change.  Are they saying now,  almost exactly one century later, that Jews and Blacks beware:  the old red hills of Georgia are mightier than anything you could ever contribute to the South?  Did Mary Phagan die in vain?  Did Leo Frank?

Again, let me stress that I do not believe that it has anything to do with the production itself or the fantastic cast of actors.  And don't get me wrong, I love a show that leaves you with more questions than answers: an unsolved crime is right up that alley.  But when there is no discernible reason for its existence, I find shows like this to be more a frustration than an entertainment.  I am very glad I got to see this production.  As far as I can tell, there probably isn't a better way to do Parade.  But shame on the authors for taking us on a ride to nowhere.

(Logo by Ford's Theatre/Theatre J; production photos by T. Charles Erickson)

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