Parade is a historically based musical produced in 1998 on Broadway. It’s a Tony Award winner for composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown and librettist Alfred Uhry. It also has 7 other nominations, including Best Musical, plus 6 Drama Desk Awards. A national tour of the show played Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre in 2000, but the Sound Theatre Company production which opened this past weekend at 12th Avenue Arts, is the first home-grown production of this stark, gorgeously scored piece.
Director Troy Wageman, an artist drawn to such works, has done remarkable work here. Scott Brateng’s subtly un-showy choreography laces in dance steps of the era (the tale is set in the 1913 in Marietta, Georgia.) Interestingly, Stephen Sondheim took a pass on writing this show when approached by director (and frequent collaborator) Harold S. Prince, but it opened the door for Brown to write what I still feel is his strongest score a near opera, really. Musical director Nathan Young and a small but skilled orchestra do it honor here, as does the ensemble cast.
The musical dramatizes the 1913 trial of Yankee Jewish factory manager Leo Frank, accused and convicted of raping and murdering a thirteen-year-old employee, Mary Phagan. The trial, sensationalized by the media, aroused anti-semitic tensions throughout the state of Georgia. (SPOILER ALERT) The verdict sentencing Frank to death was commuted to life in prison by the lame-duck Georgia governor John M. Slaton due to his detailed review of the lengthy testimony and possible problems with the trial. Leo Frank was transferred to a prison in Milledgeville, Georgia, where a lynching party seized and kidnapped him. Frank was taken to Phagan’s hometown of Marietta, Georgia, and he was hanged from an oak tree. The events surrounding the investigation and trial led to two groups emerging: the revival of the defunct KKK and the birth of the Jewish Civil Rights organization, the Anti-Defamation League.
In dramatizing the story, librettist Uhry emphasized the evolving relationship between Leo and his wife Lucille. Their relationship shifts from cold to warm in the course of the story, with Leo at Work/What am I Waiting For?, You Don’t Know This Man, Do it Alone, and All the Wasted Time.
The poignancy of the couple, who fall in love in the midst of adversity, is the core of the work. It makes the tragic outcome–the miscarriage of justice–even more disturbing. As Leo, Jeff Orton embodies the tightly wound, fish out of water persona of a man who untiringly proclaims his innocence, despite his dismay. Orton’s own stature may be diminutive, but his performance stands tall, and his strong, characterful vocals soar. Tori Spero, a strong ensemble member and comedienne in past shows, and a vibrant featured lead as Queenie in Sound’s Wild Party a few season’s back, finds Lucille’s truth. Even if there needs to be a bit smoother transition between the demure, supportive wife of Act 1 (highlighted by her plaintive yet powerful You Don’t Know This Man) and the strong-willed and determined woman she becomes, her Act 2 is revelatory, especially in her solo Do It Alone and in the heart-wrenching duet All the Wasted Time. She and Orton reach the apex of their work then, singing one of those rare musical theatre songs that becomes an art song.
A strong supporting ensemble includes DeSean Hailey as the defiant and treacherously two-faced factory worker Jim Conley. Hailey’s body language and dance moves are a highlight of the production, as it becomes more and more clear that Conley should have stood trial for the slaughter of young Mary Phagan instead of Leo Frank. Delaney Guyer could not be more tragically appealing as Mary, and Ben Wynant hits the right balance of youthful swagger and heartbreak as her would-be beau Frankie Epps, as well as his featured vocal in the stunning opening and closing number The Old Red Hills of Home. Ann Cornelius does stellar double duty as both Mary’s grieving mother singing another stand-out number My Child Will Forgive Me, and as the sassy and supportive wife of Governor John Slaton (Jordan Jackson, earnestly appealing in a somewhat thankless role). Brian Lange adds to his ever-growing resume of fine stage work as the dogged yet troubled Prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, Justin Carrell is chilling as the bible thumping Tom Watson and Victoria Rosser brings complexity and deep feeling to the role of the Frank’s maid Minola who is forced to take the stand against her employer. The rest of the ensemble contributes mightily to the shows, especially in the finely sung ensemble vocal pieces.
Richard Schaefer’s effective set is starkly simple, with the actor’s seated in chairs onstage when not involved with the action, and the audience is positioned like a crowd at a basketball game. Alyssa Milione’s lighting design effortlessly captures a plethora of moods, from institutional to pastoral, and Rachel Kunze Wilkie’s costumes are as handsome as they are period perfect.
The production itself is as solid and thoughtful as it is somber-sided. Any serious theatregoer should hightail it to 12th Avenue Arts, before this Parade passes by.
Parade from Sound Theatre Company runs through March 26, 2016 at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Avenue on Capitol Hill. Tickets: $28, $18 for students with ID; (800) 838-3006 or at Brown Paper Tickets.