Orange County Theatre Reviews

(All photos by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio)

Written by Scotty Keister 

Madison Miller as Monteen, Madeline Ellingson as Iola Stover, and Alissa Finn as Essie in PARADE

The musical Parade, now on stage at the Chance Theater, details the 1913 trial, conviction and lynching of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn Jew living in Marietta, Georgia. With a book by Alfred Uhry and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown — both Tony Award winners for the show —it’s a dark, disturbing and unflinching look at American history. Despite Tony and Drama Desk awards, it was apparently too dark for Broadway in its 1998 premier, as it ran for only two months. After some retooling of the score, Parade reopened  at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2007 before it moved on to Los Angeles and subsequent national tours.

The production at the Chance is a gripping and stark piece of theater. The entire stage, designed by Fred Kinney, is built from simple boards, which could have been a 1913 Georgia factory floor. The only props are wooden chairs and small wooden tables. The choreography, which is really more movement than dancing, is performed by the cast as though enacting a series of rituals, a community in lock-step toward a single, dark purpose. The south is still smarting from the civil war, and no doubt distrustful of northerners. Factory conditions at the time were horrendous and not a popular subject.

Leo Frank (Allen Everman), a married man, is the superintendent of one such pencil factory. A 13-year old girl, Mary Phagan (Gabrielle Adner), is found murdered, and Frank is eventually arrested and charged with the crime. The district attorney, Hugh Dorsey (Chris Kerrigan), manipulates witnesses and evidence to rig the trial against Frank, and with the help of some clearly false testimony by the black factory janitor, Jim Conley (Robert Collins), Frank is sent to prison to await execution. The remainder of the play follows the efforts of Frank’s wife Lucille (Erica Schaeffer) to convince the state governor, John Slaton (Tucker Boynes), to reexamine the case and free Leo. After Leo’s sentence is finally commuted to life,  a mob of enraged locals lynch him. There’s no happy Broadway ending here. It’s a powerful, harrowing story, and the play makes no bones about it.

More an operetta than a musical, the show is 90% singing. Brown’s music, though complex and distinctly not hummable, is stirring and dramatic when performed by this talented group of actors, beginning with the opening number sung by Dillon Klena, as a soldier lamenting the war and praising the glories of the red hills of Georgia. Though mostly too young to play the characters they are portraying, the cast is nonetheless convincing and 100% tuned in. Everman’s performance as the doomed Frank is a standout. Leo is haughty and unlikable at the start of the show. His relationship with his wife is cold and distant , yet throughout his incarceration he opens up to both Lucille and the audience in a way that radiates warmth. Schaeffer’s Lucille is also a highlight. Intelligent, canny and loving, she is the driving force of act two. Collins as the black janitor, who more than likely was the actual culprit, is brilliant in his chain gang number where he challenges the governor to prove he lied. Not all the voices sound perfect in solo, but the ensemble singing is powerful. Summer Greer in a supporting role shows off one of the strongest voices in the show in the act two opening number.

Director Kari Hayter presents a focused vision of Americana in this show that has echoes of The Crucible. Hayter had the cast working in perfect unison, both in movement and voice. Similarly, Robyn Manion’s six-piece band was flawless to my ears. The Chance has the tech element of performing musicals nailed. The music was loud and boisterous but finely-mixed so that every voice could be heard clearly. There were no mike drop-outs or distant instruments, nothing to distract the audience from the story’s relentless pursuit of injustice. There are, thankfully, elegant bits of humor scattered throughout the show. The evolving love story between Leo and Lucille is welcome and keeps the audience involved, with something to hang onto other than the horror of the proceedings. In fact, the many truths of the story that the play leaves out are even more horrific, probably too much so. The result of this episode of history was the resurgence of the KKK as well as the formation of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. At one point near the beginning of the investigation, DA Dorsey sees that they could easily pin the crime on Conley or the black, night watchman.  “But,” he reflects, “We can’t just hang another black man.”  It’s a deeply cynical but honest look at the racism and anti-semitism that is a deplorable part of American history.

Parade is an exceptional production, well acted and directed, and makes for a thought-provoking and memorable night of theater. It runs through July 30 on the Cripe Stage at the Chance in Anaheim.

Exceptional Show

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