BWW Reviews: Boiler Room Theatre Brings Stunning PARADE To The Stage
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by Jeffrey Ellis
In the aftermath of the Civil War and the period of Reconstruction that followed, Southerners found themselves mourning the loss of the war and battling to hold on to the last vestiges of their unique way of life-one filled with grace and high ideals (if one is to believe the storytellers) but one that was, without a shadow of a doubt, built upon the backs of slaves. Amid revolutionary change for a society loath to accept it, the story of Atlanta factory manager Leo Frank and young Mary Phagan perhaps seemed predestined given the tenor of those quickly changing times. In fact, it reads as if it were created from whole cloth (cotton, of course) by yellow journalists seizing upon the public hunger for scandal and intrigue.
Playwright Alfred Uhry (who has created some of the most evocative Southern works of recent memory, including Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night of Ballyhoo, both of which focus on the lives of the Southern Jewry) and composer Jason Robert Brown (whose The Last Five Years and Songs for a New World are two of the finest musical scores of contemporary musical theater) have brought the true story of Leo Frank and Mary Phagan to the stage in the moving and elucidating Parade, a remarkable adaptation of the story that filled reams of newsprint in 1913-14 with a story that still tantalizes and scandalizes.
Now onstage in a thoroughly effective production directed by Sondra Morton at Franklin's Boiler Room Theatre, Parade is not your mama's or your granddaddy's musical comedy, to be certain. Instead, it's a very modern take on the legend of Leo and Mary, using contemporary idioms to relate their story amid a palpable feeling of tradition and history that informs everything that happens in the so-called "New South." The simmering rage and barely masked racism and virulent anti-semitism that flow throughout Parade continue to reverberate. Don't believe me? Consider the continued presence of the Ku Klux Klan (originally established in Pulaski, Tennessee, as a response to the perceived indignities of Reconstruction), which was given new life in the aftermath of Mary Phagan's brutal slaying and the conviction of Leo Frank for the crime, and you'll realize that despite all the progress that has been made, there's still a long row to hoe before a post-racial society can be realized. And it's been almost 100 years since the Leo Frank/Mary Phagan story sold newspapers and 147 years since Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox supposedly ended the War Between the States.
Thus, Parade remains a relevant work of art. Uhry's book is a richly drawn, remarkably accurate account of the story that provides its basis: Leo Frank, a Brooklyn Jew, comes south to run Atlanta's National Pencil Company and ends up marrying Lucille, a completely assimilated Jewess, whose uncle owns the factory. As legend has it-and newspaper accounts at the time trumpeted-14-year-old Mary Phagan, a poor white Southern girl, came to the factory manager's office on Confederate Memorial Day (a holiday still written in red on some Dixiefied calendars and venerated by aging belles and their gallant male counterparts) in 1913 to pick up her meager pay envelope before heading out to enjoy the festivities of the late April day. She never made it. Mary never took the first sip of cool lemonade on an already balmy late Spring day, nor did she meet her would-be beau Frankie Epps at the nickelodeon for the latest silent picture show.
Instead, her bruised and battered body was found on the clammy cement floor of the factory basement by the company's night watchman, setting off a media frenzy in the days before anyone ever knew-or even gave a good goddamn-what a media frenzy was. In short order, Leo Frank was arrested and convicted of the crime, sentenced to death by hanging at the behest of a screaming mob who may as well have been carrying torches and pitchforks while calling for the quick and merciless death of the Yankee Jew.
Hardly sounds like the stuff of musical theater, does it? Particularly, in a world filled with silliness and frothy, confectionary musical comedy, one wonders what it was about the story of Leo and Mary that "hooked" Uhry and Brown. Well, in the same way that his other, more famous scripts are drawn from family history and Atlanta-bred legend, Uhry's uncle owned National Pencil Company, the happenstance of life providing him with a uniquely personal perspective on the story.
Brown was brought to the project by director Harold Prince when Stephen Sondheim turned down the opportunity to provide a score for the musical that became Parade. Brown's skills at crafting beautiful melodies with expressive, articulate phrasing that show off the power of language to near-perfection made him the obvious choice to create the lushly beautiful score that provides Parade with such awe-inspiring moments that will be seared into your heart and soul. His "The Old Red Hills of Home" recalls the regional anthems that are a part of the Southern experience, while he shows off a command of the theatrical in songs such as "The Picture Show" and "Big News." Conversely, he creates ballads like "All the Wasted Time" and "You Don't Know This Man" with grace and an almost insouciant ease.
Parade represents the very best of contemporary musical theater: Uhry and Brown take a true story filled with over-arching themes of tradition, of time and place, of the ever-moving cavalcade of human history and, in turn, fashion it into a work of art that almost surreptitiously engages the viewer, giving them a history lesson in the process, and challenging their pre-conceived notions of the society from which they have evolved. It's a heady experience, to be certain, and perhaps I'm being too verbose in selling it, but make no mistake about it: Parade is a theatrical adventure you simply cannot miss.
With its focus on life in the South some 50 years after "The War" (spoken in too many syllables in the way we Southerners like to drawl out our words), the pervasive themes of class struggle, changing social mores, the coming homogenization of America are presented in Parade with careful consideration and attention to detail (the mesmerizing, confounding facts of the story are borne out beautifully in song and in scene work). While those aforementioned themes are almost operatic in their scope and the profundity of the story being related, Parade retains a strongly felt connection to The Commonplace by maintaining a lifeline to the real people whose lives provided the genesis of the tale. Thus, in order to make the story even more universal and more palatable to contemporary theater-goers, Uhry and Brown use the relationship of Lucille and Leo Frank-which evolves from a cold partnership to a passionate love affair-to give Parade its sweetly sentimental, though never cloying, core.
The script walks a very fine line, presenting the facts and expounding upon them with barely a hint of hyperbole. You cannot watch Parade and easily separate the characters using some good guy/bad guy paradigm. Rather, much like life, the story is far more complex and, in turn, unstructured in its way. Leo Frank is not a very likable man; he's tightly wound and more than a little imperious, out-of-place in his surroundings, bridling at the assimilation of Southern Jews who don't really seem like Jews at all (a charge repeated just last week by someone very close to me-times, they may be a-changing, but at a glacial pace for sure). Lucille, initially at least, seems like an assimilated dilettante, fearing for her own social position in light of her husband's alleged crimes and misdeeds, only later realizing the implications of the self-imposed bigotry and high charged situations in which she finds herself. Prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, an ambitious politician and religious zealot, betrays his own prejudices while weighing all his options. And Georgia governor Jack Slaton, the only individual who can effectively take control of the situation, is shown in all his questionable glory struggling to reach a decision on whether or not to take action.
Only Mary Phagan, displaying the exuberance which only the innocent can maintain and then is struck down in her youthful beauty, seems relatively unscathed in the aftermath of her murder and the ensuing political/legal and social carnival that rises up after her untimely demise. Yet, as The Knights of Mary Phagan (the KKK-inspired legion of vigilantes that seek to visit their horrible brand of justice upon the citizens of Georgia) come into existence in the wake of her death, her legacy becomes mired in ugliness and untruths, cloaking the reality of her story is something far more unsettling and insidious.
Director Sondra Morton's vision for Parade is relatively faithful to the script-and musical director Jamey Green's eight-member band plays Brown's glorious score with an artful blending of skill and fervor-and she stages the work with imagination and creativity while using the intimate confines of Boiler Room Theatre to more effectively engage the audience and to involve them in the story playing out before them. You can't help but be caught up by Brown's dramatic, sweeping score, and in the involving and heartfelt story being presented in a manner that is highly theatrical, yet altogether realistic and genuine.
The production is not without some anachronisms-countless character shoes and rubber-soled oxfords are on the actors' feet (a personal peeve of mine as I continue on my never-ending quest of pointing out how ridiculous such footwear can appear), Mary Phagan's pay envelope is far too large and pricey (by 1913 standards) and you sometimes hear the lilt of a 21st century "Southern" voice that betrays the actor-but overall the attention to detail is admirable, adding to the show's overall appeal. Lauri Gregoire's choreography uses period dance as its inspiration and provides the production with some strong movement, without being incongruous.
Perhaps Morton's greatest skill lies in her expert casting for Parade. Performed by a uniformly fine company of players led by Paul Cook as Leo Frank, Megan Murphy Chambers as Lucille Frank, Matt Baugher as Hugh Dorsey and young Hope Dyra as Mary Phagan, Parade is brought to life by the vigorous, thoroughly focused performances from the members of the ensemble.
Cook, known primarily in Nashville theater circles as a critically acclaimed director, gives a performance of Leo Frank that is startling in its intensity, yet remains solidly grounded in realism. Self-assured and confident, Cook's Leo is quite the opposite: a bundle of nerves, blanching at the perceived improprieties of the legal profession, yet almost completely devoid of self-awareness, he is initially off-putting and charmless. However, as the plot progresses and Leo gives over some control of his destiny to his wife, we see a different person emerging, one far more likable and ingratiating. As a result, when Leo Frank's ultimate outcome is on display, you cannot help but be moved and to feel an emotional tug at your own heart.
Chambers is, without any sense of exaggeration, one of the finest musical theater actresses to be found on any stage. Unique among Nashville actresses, she has had an amazing 2012 season, playing Diana in next to normal to universal acclaim and audience ardor and now adding the role of Lucille Frank to her own personal pantheon of theatrical achievement. It seems that in every role she assays, Chambers allows audiences to see a new and revelatory part of her personality, completely cloaking herself in the raiments of her character while providing every script-bound role with much-needed heart and humanity. The result? You leave the theater awestruck by what you've just witnessed.
Together, Cook and Chambers (who have worked together in the hand-in-glove way that directors and actors tend to collaborate) present a portrait of the Franks with such honesty that you find yourself immersed in their story, pulling for them, cheering them on, only to find your heart breaking as the story plays out onstage just as it did in real life some 100 years ago.
Baugher takes on the role of Hugh Dorsey with his customary zeal and focused restraint. With Baugher's obvious stage presence and ready charm-coupled with his beautiful voice-it's near impossible to dislike Dorsey despite the fact that it is his ambition that ushers a presumably innocent man to the gallows, while fanning the flames of racially-charged controversy in a town rife with mistrust.
Stage veteran Dan McGeachy is quietly effective as Governor Slaton, while Laura Crockarell is impressive as his wife "Miss Sally" and as Mary Phagan's grief-stricken mother. Perhaps most noteworthy about Crockarell's performance is the ease with which she plays both characters so seamlessly and so believably.
Hope Dyra is perfectly cast as Mary Phagan, her lovely face and demeanor ensuring the audience immediately identifies with her. Clad in costume designer Katie Delaney's lavender silk hair ribbons and white ruffles, she is the very picture of Southern gentility that thrived despite the deplorable economic conditions in which her family subsisted. Dyra is so sure of herself to be disarming and she displays an uncanny ability to sound truly Southern despite her typical Middle American teenager's vernacular and sound offstage. In short, she takes on her character fearlessly, making Mary Phagan live and breathe once more.
Bakari King, cast in the role of Jim Conley, the pencil factory "sweeper," who today is believed to have been the person responsible for Mary Phagan's death, takes on his role with great relish, delivering a no-holds-barred performance that is fascinating while being completely off-putting in all its brash swagger.
Jordan Ravellette is revelatory in his performance as newspaper reporter Britt Craig. Ravellette's multi-faceted performance belies his genial smile and wide-eyed sense of wonder, and his performance of "Big News" is one of the evening's musical highlights.
Speaking of musical highlights, Josh Lowery opens the show with the stirring "The Old Red Hills of Home," commanding the stage with a sense of purpose and a presence that many, far more experienced actors can only hope to have. As he takes on the character of Mary's friend and would-be suitor Frankie Epps, Lowery exhibits a deft sense of his place in the story by delivering a stunning performance.
The rest of the ensemble's members-Dan Zeigler, Flynt Foster, Piper Jones, Darci Wantiez, Morganne Best, Arden Guice, Paige Brouilette and Colin Carswell-give consistent performances, proving that director Morton has the entire cast on the same page as they tell this story that most certainly falls into the "truth is stranger than fiction" category.
It's very likely you won't have many opportunities in your theater-going life to see Parade-it's not based on a movie comedy, it's not a story you've seen a hundred times before, it's not Hairspray, Annie or The Sound of Music. What it is, however, is an exquisitely crafted work of art, presented by a group of theater artists intent on giving the story its due. Now it is up to you-the audience-to give them the attention and acclaim they so richly deserve. Go see Parade.