There’s an old saying that asserts “Justice is blind”; it might also be equally noted however, that ‘Mob Justice” can be swift and blind-ing! Such was the case in 1913 when Leo Frank–a Jewish Factory Superintendent living in Atlanta, Georgia was falsely accused, wrongly convicted, then brutally lynched for the rape and slaying of a 13-year-old girl named “Mary Phagan” who worked at the Pencil Factory he managed. Decades later, Broadway Icon Harold Prince brought together Composer-Lyricist Jason Robert Brown and Playwright Alfred Uhry to set this case to music as the centerpiece for a musical drama which Prince had co-conceived, titled “Parade”. Now, “The Chance Theatre” in Anaheim California has re-staged this momentous theatrical experience as their summer offering. Boasting a riveting book by Uhry and music and lyrics by Brown (–his very first for a Broadway show,) both were awarded the 1999 “Tony Awards” for “Best Book Of A Musical” and “Best Score”. The production here is directed and choreographed by Kari Hayter with musical direction by Robyn Manion.
While admittedly, not a show for those who prefer that their musical entertainments promote more ‘light-hearted’ and easily-digested sentiments like “Falling In Love Is Wonderful” or “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow”, for mature theater enthusiasts who yearn for thoroughly compelling, thought-provoking fare, “The Chance Theater’s ’ latest is well worth the trip to Anaheim. Be warned though, once seen, the story that unfolds can never be forgotten (–nor should it be!) Hayter’s direction and tone finds great sophistication in mere simplicity—gaining quite innovative results with virtually no set-pieces, save for a few chairs and even a scant fewer props. She also astutely resists any temptation to further sensationalize the on-stage happenings (—this story is sensational enough!) Even the production’s most critical scene is enacted with refreshing tact—preferring “suggestion” and “symbolism” over anything overtly graphic or shocking (thankfully too, they don’t even show a noose!) It could be argued also that the real power in Hayter’s direction lies in how she maintains a tight focus on the characters while keeping one scene (including the “fantasy” and “flashback’ sequences) constantly flowing forward at a rather swift pace. This in itself pays off big time—after all, it’s a humongous plot with so much happening in such a relatively short period. Little wonder that at times, the show can actually give the illusion of being completely sung though; it isn’t of course, allowing for brief sections of Uhry’s award-winning dialogue, but thanks to the Director’s perceptive stewardship over the material–and the significant talents of her actors, it all seems to fly incredibly by. As Choreographer, she similarly succeeds inserting moments of dance to lighten the mood as needed, and cleverly incorporates dance and movement into many sections where you might not readily expect them. This also goes a long way to lighten such a doleful tale, as with the almost-playful “Musical Chairs” maneuvers witnessed in the course of Leo’s jazzy “Come Up To My Office” sequence. To top it off, Hayter definitely knows (and utilizes) the various dances of the age, such as seen at the conclusion of Act One, once Leo has been found guilty, as the crowd bursts into a celebratory “cake-walk” as part of “The Verdict”; this then morphs into a more rhythmic traditional Jewish folk dance something akin to “The Hora”. Subsequently, at a garden party held at the Governor’s mansion in Act Two, the Governor and his wife lead their guests in an old-fashioned “One Step”/”Foxtrot” during their “Pretty Music” number.
The ensemble are uniformly gifted with the kind of substantial voices that any choir director dreams of having. The prologue, “The Old Red Hills Of Home” is sung first by an idealistic young confederate soldier to the sweetheart he’s leaving to go off to war, then later by a much older version of this now former “Jonny Reb”—who, having been wounded, now walks with a cane and sings of the glories of the past back when, as he puts it, “The Southland was free”. Preparing to ‘march’ in the annual “Confederate Memorial Day” parade he reminisces: “Not much survives of the old hills of Georgia, but I close my eyes and hear all the treasures we held dear.” Thematically, this sets the stage and contributes a strong insight to the Georgian people of the time—still (literally) wounded from the (for them) relatively recent “War Between The States”, and deeply resentful and mistrustful of the North and those who hail from it. Both “Soldiers”—young and old—have large, laudable, voices before they are backed by the company–not only launching this “parade” in grand style, but also giving us but a sample of their first-class chorale work—including some rousing group harmony. They will favor and thrill us time and again—and rest assured, there are plenty of opportunities for them to do so (it may not always be ‘jubilant’ or ‘festive’ given the story, but they always move and astound doing it!) After the opening, the next communal accomplishment takes place at “Mary’s” funeral. Fashioned in the form of a conventional southern ‘hymn”, the company performs “There Is A Fountain”. Her once ‘incipient’ Beau, “Frankie’s” verses are especially poignant, constituting a guileless kind of eulogy wherein he ponders: “Did you ever hear her laugh? When she laughed you swore you’d never cry again. Did you ever see her smile? Her smile was like a glass of Lemonade—and she said funny things and she wore pretty dresses and she liked to see the pictures at the V.F.W. hall…” Joined with a fittingly reverent reprise of “There Is A Fountain”, this makes for a heart-wrenching ode. At the show’s climax they come together once more for the potent full-cast endeavor, “Where Will You Stand When The Flood Comes”. Incensed by the betrayal they contend that their Governor has visited down upon them when he commutes Leo’s sentence, the citizens of Atlanta self-righteously burst forth to take matters into their own hands: “Mary, Mary, the Angel Child, still your name and your soul are defiled,” they rage—“Thank God you can’t hear the things they say—but SOMEONE’S GONNA PAY!” The finale, a daring, defiant reprise of “The Old Red Hills Of Home” is also an A-Plus winner for all involved as those assembled once again stand against the fiery-red backdrop to resolutely harmonize–this time to a driving, vaguely ominous, military cadence. (It’s a terse stage picture that speaks volumes about the times then—and maybe even, to some unnerving extent, now as well!)
Allen Everman does an outstanding job as “Leo Frank”—the man at the center of all the goings-on. In his custodianship, “Frank” is a tightly-wound Gefilte-fish-out-of- water, originally from Brooklyn and longing for more understandable” (read: ”friendly”) terrain: “For the life of me, I can’t understand how God created you people Jewish and Southern at the same time!” he observes about his wife’s ‘Southern” upbringing. Then, when she chides him about his insistent use of Yiddish idioms like “Meshuggeneh” he retorts: “I use them because they’re Jewish words and I’m Jewish!” In a role that could too-easily come off as say, a “Woody Allen” or “Jackie Mason” parody, Everman sagaciously walks the fine-line between being a stereotype and being a genuine person who we could–and probably have, honestly known. This has him dispensing just a touch of his character’s ethnicity while showing enough restraint to keep it from being overblown or comical—often despite the script’s leanings to the contrary. The very stance he maintains throughout his court proceedings is just this side of prim (he remains utterly frozen and unemotional as the verdict is read, then dispassionate–even philosophical–when ultimately confronted by the lynch-mob.) Vocally, Everman has an admirable voice which he handily validates with his opening salvo, “How Can I Call This Home?!” (This is where Frank also makes the pointed observation “Being ‘Southern’s not just ‘being in the South’!” before going on to kvetch, “I’m trapped inside this life, and trapped beside a wife who would prefer that I’d say ‘Howdy’–not ‘Shalom’!” ) It’s a comedic bright-spot which introduces us to “Leo Frank” and his wife, before the story gets darker. Everman does get one chance to eventually ‘cut loose’ though–amidst the sequence that accompanies the testimony of a trio of Mary’s teenaged co-workers titled “Come Up To My Office” as they all act out a salacious fantasy of what Frank, the “Supervisor” was like to work for and how such ‘innocent’ girls were no match for his lust-filled advances. Toward the end of the act he is again given the chance to speak (via song) with his ‘statement’, “It’s Hard To Speak My Heart”. Intense, yes–but it still allows us just enough of a glimpse into who he is and why he keeps the world at bay, for us to continue hoping for the best for him: “I stay where I am in control—I hide behind my work, safe and sure of what to say; I know I must seem hard, I know I must seem cold… You see me as I am—you can’t believe I’d lie—you can’t believe I’d do these deeds; a little man who’s scared and blind—too lost to find the words he needs…”
By his side (despite his outward cold disinterest initially) is Erica Schaeffer as Leo’s wife “Lucille. Schaeffer’s portrayal is perhaps the most three-dimensional and well-rounded of those seen here—and while you can’t exactly call this a ‘love’ story, the pair do have their moments. When we meet “Lucille” she is, for the most part, a marginalized and under-appreciated wife attempting to find the bright side of her situation with Leo. Through it all though, it’s apparent that Lucille is unmistakably a bit in awe of her husband, finding him intelligent, down-to-earth and, given his “Yankee” upbringing, even somewhat exotic. In addition, Schaeffer herself is Grade-A vocal force to be reckoned with, which is vital as “Lucille’s” “character-arc” is predominantly evidenced by her various songs, starting with “What Am I Waiting For”: “Didn’t my wishes come true for me, the day he walked through the door? Isn’t he all that I knew he’d be—brilliant and filled with humility? Loyal and stable as any tree—so why do I wait for more? What am I waiting for?!” Her inner-strength is really revealed though, once Leo is charged, and Schaefer strikes a superlative balance between articulating her strong emotions through acting and singing, (–and she doesn’t lose the opportunity to furnish us with some venerable ‘money notes” in the process!) Such is the case with “You Don’t Know This Man” in which “Mrs. Frank” confronts a reporter intent on getting ‘the real story” (but not caring a whit if he gets it ‘right’!) Post-intermission, she pretty much ‘drives’ the act trying to get justice for her imprisoned husband–and her heated benediction, “Do It Alone” is a bona fide highlight. Filled with sharp lyrics and a snappy rhythm, she vents her frustration on “Leo” who continues to keep his emotional distance from her: “I could be your quiet little girl and cook your little meal (and swallow all I feel) and bow to your command,” she fumes; “Or I could start to scream across the South and never shut my mouth until they understand!” Together, she and Everman’s 11 O’clock duet, “All The Wasted Time” is about as touching as it gets, as Leo, having finally slowed down enough (thanks to all of the adversity he’s been through,) to fully appreciate Lucille, enjoys a long-delayed moment of tenderness with her (this is also the only time he categorically tells her “I love you.”) It’s also a bittersweet intermezzo, particularly when you consider what’s to soon, inevitably, follow by the show’s conclusion.
As the ill-fated “Mary Phagan”, Gabrielle Adner makes a pivotal impression in only a few scenes. She also has an elegant and expressive vocal quality along with a spritely personality. Early on, her “Mary” is full of life, fun, and flirtatious high-spirits. Conversely, her later appearances become conspicuously weightier and even grim–as during her part in “Frankie’s Testimony” which he relates to the courtroom (again in flashback.) There, her presence is eerily portentous as he recalls her “telling’ him of her uneasiness over her boss’s strange behaviors: “He calls my name—I turn my head… he got no words to say. His eyes get big—my face gets red and I want to run away…” As “Frankie” Dillon Klena is also ‘spot-on”—first as the fresh-faced young soldier in the opening, then as “Mary’s” aspiring adolescent suitor who takes her death demonstrably hard as only boys that age can. Displaying a volatile mix of youthful rage and overwhelming grief as he struggles with the sheer profundity of her loss, his most impactful moments come primarily during “It Don’t Make Sense”; before tragedy strikes though, both Adner and Klena share a convivial little duet with “The Picture Show”: “When do you turn sixteen?” he asks mischievously; “Two years from next June” she coyly giggles back. Chris Kerrigan too, provides a strong countenance as the chief Prosecutor, “Hugh Dorsey”—at first glance presenting a laid back ‘Good ol’ boy; but look closer and you see a toweringly ambitious Politician wannabe. “Ah let him go!” he spits in disgust after failing to bully the factory’s night watchman, a humble and devout African-American man named “Newt Lee’ into confessing. “Hangin’ another ‘Nigra’ tain’t enough this time!” he breezes, ruminating on his lackluster record for convictions; “We gotta do better! Get him outa here!” Kerrigan is also in possession of some enviable singing skills–our first taste of which comes directly after the funeral sequence with the conspiratorial “Somethin’ Ain’t Right”. Beginning to formulate a plan to go after Leo, our boy darkly croons: “It’s in his hands—see how he rubs ‘em both together like he’s tryin’ to get ‘em clean?! It’s in his eyes—wonder why he stares at the floor and won’t look you straight in the face? Somethin’ ain’t right!” This is followed by his opening remarks to the jury—“Twenty Miles From Marietta”. Therewith he recounts Mary Phagan’s meager beginnings, detailing why and how she came to work in Frank’s factory.
Others in this fairly sizeable cast may not have as much time in front of the spotlight, but while there, they certainly do shine. These include Laura M. Hathaway—a familiar figure before “The Chance’s” foot-lights, who’s featured here as Mary’s grieving mother, “Mrs. Phagan”. Hathaway has a proven ability to conjure just the right emotions and hit all the right notes while doing it–which she so efficaciously does with “My Child Will Forgive Me”—as “Mrs. Phagan” lamentably tries to convince herself: “My child will forgive me for raising her poor–and for takin’ her out of school; my child will forgive me for not doin’ more to protect her from men who are evil and cruel…” Another worthy “Stand-out” is Mitchell Turner as “Britt Craig”, a flashy, grinning, besotted (—and just a tad sleazy,) “Fake News” peddling city-slicker reporter who’s more interested in grabbing big headlines than anything even remotely resembling uncovering the truth. He gives the proceedings a welcome, if misguided, jolt of ebullience when, seeing gold in the potential circus that “Craig” and his fellow reporters turn this tragedy into, he ‘conducts’ the townspeople in the vivacious “Real Big News”. Not to be overlooked either is Robert Stroud, who doubles as both hapless night watchman “Newt Lee” and “Riley”, the footman. Joined by Summer Greer as the house-domestic “Angela”, both triumph launching the second act with “Rumblin’ And A’Rollin” during which they, two African-American servants, wonder if the same trouble would be taken had the victim been black, while also reveling in the fact that for once, the one paying for such a heinous crime is someone of a decidedly lighter-skinned race. Robert Collin’s is also a bold stage-presence, with sumptuously sonorous and soulful voice as the factory’s Janitor (“I prefer ‘Cleaning Supervisor’, if ya don’t mind”) “Jim Conley”—the man who discovered Mary’s body (and whom many to this day suspect is the true culprit.) Collin’s rendition of the Bluesy, Gospel-esque “Feel The Rain” is well worth waiting for (–and oh, what notes this guy can hit!) Coming late in Act Two, “Conley”, now sentenced to a year on a chain-gang as an “accessory” to Frank’s crime, refuses to recant his damning testimony. Backed by a crew of his fellow “convicts” this number may be relatively fleeting but it’s nonetheless magnificent and memorable!
Fred Kinney’s basic–even austere–set design, consists of numerous rough-hewn boards and a backdrop against which is projected a looming Confederate Flag. The playing space is abundant, unadorned and unsettlingly stark, but serves as a remarkable—and remarkably malleable–framework for all the occurrences about to transpire. At intermission, the projection changes slightly—where, now at the dead-center of the customary “Stars and Bars” is found a six-pointed “Star of David”. As expansive as the stage looks to be though, it is through the inspired use of light (courtesy of Masako Tobaru’s’ canny and capable lighting design) and its inventive interplay with shadows, that keenly directs where the focus should be–standing in for time and location changes, while “opening up” when appropriate for full-scale “production” numbers and crowd interactions. Just as effective is Ms. Tobaru’s judicious use of color to convey and comment on the presiding emotions of the characters. (No doubt one of the more indelible motifs of the show is seeing the entire troupe with their backs to the audience standing against the rear stage wall as it glows–seething red, once word of “Leo’s” sentence being ‘commuted” breaks.) Moreover, Elizabeth Cox’s authentic costume designs veer toward the realistically drab over anything truly ‘flashy”, yet they cogently evoke America’s so-called ‘gentler’, ‘less-complicated’ age just before “World War One”.
At turns, haunting, outrageous, infuriating, captivating and always unforgettable, don’t let this “Parade” pass you by! After “previewing” from June 30th through July 7th, “Parade” officially opened on Saturday, July 8th, where it is slated to run through Sunday, July 30th, 2017 at “The Chance Theater” on their “Cripe Stage”, at ‘The Bette Aiken Theater Arts Center” located at: 5522 E. La Palma Avenue in Anaheim, California. Showtimes are Thursday evenings at 7:30 PM, Friday evenings at 8:00 PM, Saturdays at 3:00 PM and 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 3:00 PM. There will be an added performance on Wednesday, July 12th at 7:30 PM. Tickets may be obtained either by phone at: (888) 455-4212 or on-line by logging onto: http://www.ChanceTheater.com. (Special discounts are available for seniors, students and military for this engagement.)
Production Photos by Doug Catiller at “True Image Studio” (www.trueimagestudio.com) Courtesy Of “The Chance Theater”; Special Thanks To Casey Long, Kari Hayter, Robyn Manion, Oanh Nguyen, And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Chance Theater’s” 2017 Production Of “Parade” For Making This Story Possible.