Powerful and Thought-Provoking Parade Is Must-See Theater

Photo credit: Frank O’Donnell

Parade is an ironically cheery title for a musical that is unapologetically dark. Based on a true and pivotal event in American legal, social and political history, Parade dramatizes the 1913 trial of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent accused of murdering a factory worker under his employ. The events surrounding the trial lead to both the revival of the KKK and the inception of The Anti-Defamation League, the internationally known Jewish civil rights organization.

With this production, the Academy Players mark the third season in a row in which they have mounted a musical composed by Jason Robert Brown (the previous shows including 13 and Bridges of Madison County). Their apparent love for his work is no wonder; Brown’s scores are gorgeous. Parade was the first of his shows to hit Broadway, but already his skill was evident, the score spanning genres from rags and blues to hymns and the sweeping melodies Brown is perhaps best known for. As such, it won the Tony for Best Score, along with a Tony for Alfred Uhry’s book (Uhry is actually descended from the owner of the factory where the murder took place). Despite these wins, Parade was not a commercial success, playing only 84 performances on Broadway.

The show opens with a young soldier (Ian Pedroza) about to go off to fight in the Civil War, 50 years before the events of the rest of the story, singing of his love for his dear Lila and “the old red hills of home.” We see the same soldier as an older, battle-scarred man (Michael Carnevale) reminiscing on the good ol’ days of the south. The purpose of this is clear: It sets up the world Leo Frank reluctantly enters into as an outsider that he so reviles and cannot understand. It’s a world that’s stuck in its past — not ashamed of its defeat, mind you, but proud of what it once was. In retrospect, it makes sense, it feels like a bit of a slow start, and it was not until the full cast joined in for the end of the number that I was swayed. This is a fairly large cast, and as such, they pack a powerful punch when they all sing together.

We then meet Leo and Lucille Frank (Kyle Buonfiglio and Lauren Vine), a married couple who could probably benefit from some couple’s therapy. Leo, a college-educated Jew from Brooklyn, feels uncomfortable with southern culture, especially because it’s Confederate Memorial Day. Uninterested in celebrating such a misguided holiday, he opts to go into work instead of having a picnic with his wife. Meanwhile, Frankie asks Mary Phagan to the picture show in a number of playful flirtation. Mary, played by Haley Bourne, is adorable in this scene, so of course, her fate is sealed as she goes to receive her pay from Leo at the factory.

And that’s when it happens: the murder that sets the plot in motion.

Leo is arrested as the interrogation of the night watchman who found the body casts suspicion upon him. The need to deliver justice pushes prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (Zach Searle) to get Leo convicted by any means necessary — including blackmailing and coaching witnesses. His ruthless campaign against Leo is aided by reporter Britt Craig (Ray Fournier) and publisher Tom Watson (RJ Lima), who do their best to turn the mournful laments over Mary’s death into vicious cries for Leo’s blood. This especially takes root in Frankie, in a dynamic performance by Matthew Lavigne in the funeral sequence.

As Craig spreads rumors degrading Leo’s character in the number “Real Big News” (performed with ferocious exuberance by Ray Fournier), Lucille becomes uncomfortable with all of the attention on her, to the point where she considers leaving town for the trial. Though in “You Don’t Know This Man,” she seeks to set the record straight, she stops short of swearing by her husband’s innocence.

The trial presents a series of witnesses coached into making Leo sound like a predator. In haunting and discordant harmonies, Mary’s co-workers (Hope Bourne, Gia Antonelli and Alyssa Germaine) share identical stories of Leo making advances on them; Frankie claims that Mary told him that Leo made her uncomfortable; the Franks’ maid, Minnie, claims Leo behaved strangely that night; and perhaps most damningly, the factory’s sweeper, Jim Conley, claims to have been an accessory in the murder in order to gain immunity for a previous crime. With this damning evidence and Mrs. Phagan’s (Michelle Schmitt) heartfelt diatribe where she prays her daughter will forgive her for failing to prevent this tragedy and she extends forgiveness to Leo — a sentiment counteracted by her spitting the word “Jew” with more impact than a slap in the face — Leo is sentenced to death over a jubilant, albeit discordant, cakewalk.

And that’s just Act One.

Act Two is where the heart of the musical becomes clear: the relationship between Leo and Lucille. As Lucille finds the strength to raise her voice and advocate for her husband, Leo realizes he underestimated his wife. She convinces Governor John Slaton (W. Richard Johnson) to reopen Leo’s case, and the two go around to each of the witnesses and unravel their stories. From “Do It Alone,” in which Lucille is frustrated that Leo won’t let her help him, to “This Is Not Over Yet,” where her efforts come to light, to “All the Wasted Time,” which happens during a prison cell picnic, the development of their relationship is gorgeous and affecting. Never have I been quite so moved by an onstage couple as I have by this one (especially in “All the Wasted Time”) and full credit goes to the brilliant acting of Buofiglio and Vine and the direction of Chelsea and Adam Morgan (and, of course, Brown’s music).

One of the highlights is “A Rumblin’ and A Rollin’” in which the African American characters wonder if people would be quite so up in arms over this case if the victim or the accused had been black (“There’s a black man swingin’ in ev’ry tree, but they don’t never pay attention… but if a Yankee boy flies, surprise! They gonna pay attention, they gonna yell ‘Set that man free!’”). It’s a necessary addition lest racism be the elephant in the room, and man, there are no holds barred. Markia Fortado-Rahill and Dana Reid deliver a fantastic and scathing performance in this number.

This show is unbelievably heavy, and it gives audiences a lot to think about. At a time when anti-Semitism is so pervasive, as well as the notion of division in this country, this show is teeming with relevance and nuance. Parade is not for the faint of heart or for someone looking to sit back and be passively entertained, but it is absolutely for those looking for a powerful and thought-provoking night of theatre.

Parade runs at Academy Players through Jan 19. For tickets and more information, visit www.academyplayersri.org

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