At the Writers Nichols Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Glencoe – “Parade” is a painful show to watch, but it’s also exhilarating, especially in the revival at the Writers Theatre. Sure, the musical deals with racism, anti-Semitism, and injustice that leads to a lynching. But this flawlessly presented production should sweep aside any hesitation for a prospective ticket buyer. “Parade” is a must see piece of theater that deserves to be one of the summer’s biggest hits.
“Parade” is based on the true story of Leo Frank, a New York City Jew who runs a pencil factory in Atlanta, Georgia. The year is 1913, a time in American history that sets the tone for the action in the musical. Atlanta and Georgia are still bitter over the South defeat in the Civil War 50 years earlier (the Southern characters refuse to call the outcome of the war a defeat). The air is steeped in anti-black and anti-Jewish resentments, and bigotry and hostility toward the North fuel the state’s political life.
In 1913, a 13-year old white employee named Mary Phagin is found raped and murdered in the basement of Frank’s pencil factory. Suspicion falls on Leo Frank, a prickly man uncomfortable living in the South, an alien country to him. The political establishment needs a quick resolution to Mary Phagin’s murder and he is easiest mark, a Jew and a Northerner, making him a double outsider. Frank is railroaded into a conviction and he is sentenced to death by hanging. Then the governor, suspicious of the guilty verdict, commutes Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment. A vengeance-seeking band of Southern white men kidnap him and hang him from a tree.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow
The musical by Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) and Alfred Uhry (book) follow the facts of the Frank case closely but spare the audience an evening of finger pointing or preaching. The main villains are extremist newspaper publisher Tom Watson and conniving prosecuting attorney Hugh Dorsey. Immensely assisted by sensationalist press coverage, the white community is turned into a wrathful mob, erecting a wall of lies and innuendos against Frank that lead to his destruction.
Brown and Uhry energize the storytelling with a canny blend of murder mystery suspense, humor, and high drama. The music and dialogue satirize Southern attitudes from both black and a white perspective. White Southerners wrap themselves in a Southern culture they see as insulted and plundered by a savage North. The ambitions of the corrupt politicians in the piece do the rest, with friendless Leo Frank as their victim.
The shameful story is decked out in Brown’s superb score that contributes everything from a cakewalk and the blues to vaudeville, pop, and chain gang music. The songs are a full partner with the book in conveying the narrative. And the expressive choreography by Ericka Mack is a terrific helpmate in enhancing the entertainment quotient of the show.
The cast, several in break out performances, is a meld of familiar A list performers in Chicagoland musical theater and more unfamiliar artists. Frequent playgoers will recognize Patrick Andrews (Leo Frank), Devin DeSantis (the local newspaper reporter), Larry Adams (a bigoted judge), Kevin Gudahl (Hugh Dorsey), Derek Hasenstab (Governor John Slaton), McKinley Carter (Slaton’s wife and Mary Phagin’s grieving mother), and Jeff Parker (Tom Watson).
First among equals in the large supporting cast is Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, the black factory janitor who likely was Mary Phagin’s real killer. Butler-Duplessis stops the show twice with a pair of electrifying musical numbers--his false testimony during the Frank trial and his shouting blues as a chain gang prisoner later in the story. Brianna Borger gives a beautifully nuanced performance as Lucille, Leo’s Southern Jewish wife who grows before our eyes from a discontented housewife (Lucille and Leo have a dysfunctional sex life) to a fiery advocate of her husband’s innocence in the face of the white establishment’s lies.
Nicole Michelle Haskins and Jonah Winston play a droll pair of black servants who know how to play the race game with the white folks. Jake Nicholson is a real find, both as a singer and actor, as Mary Phagin’s wannabe boyfriend. Caroline Heffernan perfectly captures Mary’s saucy innocence and Zoe Nadal and Leryn Turlington are outstanding as teenage friends of Mary who get caught up in the anti-Frank hysteria. This is one of those rare productions in which every actor seems born to play his or her assigned role.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow
Director Gary Griffin stages the show with a flawless theatrical and dramatic eye ands ear. Scott Davis converts the intimate Nicholas bi-level theater performing space into a rough hewn environment that shifts easily from a court room to a prison cell with the addition of a few period props (designed by Scott Dickens). Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes put the audience authentically in early 20th century Georgia. Christine Binder designed the atmospheric lighting and Ray Nardelli designed the sound plan. Michael Mahler is the musical director and Matt Deitchman conducts the outstanding nine-piece off-stage orchestra.
“Parade” won a number of awards when it opened in New York City in 1998 but the first wave of reviews was not complimentary and the show did not do well commercially. It has gained some popularity among regional theaters over the years but one senses that the grim subject matter may lack sufficient commercial potential to attract some local artistic directors. Michael Halberstam at the Writers Theatre has built a large and dedicated audience willing to take on challenging shows, secure in the knowledge that each show will receive top-of-the-line artistic treatment buttressed by an ample production budget. “Parade” may stir outrage and sorrow in the hearts and minds of the viewers but there is honesty and creativity on the Nichols stage combined with a refusal to sugar coat the show with emotional manipulation that makes the evening essential viewing.
The show gets a rating of 4 stars.
through July 2 at the Writers Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court. Most performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $35 to
$80. Call 847 242 6000 or visit www.writerstheatre.org.
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