Here’s a question for musical theater enthusiasts. What do five of the following six musicals—Annie, Brigadoon, Grease, Oklahoma!, Oliver, Parade—have in common and which one doesn’t belong on the list?

If you answered that the first five are perennial CLO and community theater favorites and that the one that doesn’t fit is Parade, then you’re absolutely right. It should come as no surprise that a musical based on America’s worst ever case of anti-Semitism would be a tough sell for theaters whose subscribers generally prefer their entertainment to be family-friendly, warm-hearted, happily-ever-after fun.

That’s why Kentwood Players’ decision to program Jason Robert Brown’s Parade as part of their 2011 season is such a stunning one, and if the resulting production ends up uneven in certain respects, it nonetheless deserves a hearty round of applause for its daring, its pair of lead performances, and the impact it will certainly have on audiences who may be accustomed to less challenging material.

The 1915 lynching of Jewish Northerner Leo Frank, falsely convicted of murdering 13-year-old Georgia factory worker Mary Phagan, remains today, nearly a century later, one of the most horrendous miscarriages of justice in United States history. No wonder Parade (with music and lyrics by Brown and book by Alfred Uhry) was a hard sell even on Broadway. If Fosse was the “feel-good” musical of 1999, then a show with such grim subject matter as Parade was pretty much its antithesis, and closed after 85 performances.

Still, Parade snagged two Tony Awards. Composer Brown won for Best Score, a collection of songs which remain to this day his strongest and most eclectic, ranging from gospel to pop rock to rhythm and blues to emotional ballads. Likewise, no one writes with more insight about being Jewish in the South than Uhry, whose Tony-winning book proves the playwright as adept at drama as Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night Of Ballyhoo proved him at comedy. Uhry’s book moves back and forth through time, as flashbacks reveal the events leading up to Frank’s arrest and trial and we meet the musical’s many characters, each of whom played an important role in the case and each of whom gets his or her center-stage moment to shine.

In a powerful prologue, a young confederate soldier (Galen Schloming) sings a hymn to Georgia, “The Old Red Hills Of Home,” morphing into his elderly self (Rocky Miller), reminding us that the Civil War was not a distant memory at the time of Frank’s trial, but a very real one for the citizens of Atlanta.

Young Frankie Epps (Jeremy Speed Schwartz) invites Mary Phagan (Kim Dalton) to “The Picture Show,” but Mary never arrives. Soon after, janitor Newt Lee (Marcus Alan Wynn) is being interrogated (“I Am Trying To Remember”) as reporter Britt Craig (Harold Dershimer) touts “Big News!” in Atlanta. Frankie returns to sing the emotional “It Don’t Make Sense,” followed by “Watson’s Lullaby,” performed by power-hungry newspaper editor Tom Watson (Martin Feldman).

As evidence piles up against Leo, ultimately leading to his arrest for murder and the kangaroo court that was his trial, prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (Ed McBride) sings a pair of terrific Brown songs (“Somethin’ Ain’t Right” and “Twenty Miles From Marietta”), while a trio of factory girls (Monica Allan, Giana Bommarito, and Jessee Foudray) concoct an incriminating invitation by Leo for Mary to “Come Up To My Office,” a musical number all the more powerful for being so jaunty. Mary’s mother (Patricia Butler) takes the stand with the devastating “My Child Will Forgive Me,” and in a show-stoppingly jazzy “That’s What He Said,” factory worker Jim Conley (Lawrence Hatcher) concocts the elaborate lie that seals Frank’s fate.

Act Two features the show’s African-American foursome (Hatcher, Unique Shanklin, Dawn Smithey, and Wynn) performing the gospel-inspired “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’,” a song which recounts the influx of Northerners brought South by the Frank case. Governor John Slaton (Dershimer) leads “Pretty Music,” a lively dance number, while Judge Roan (Miller) and Dorsey sing “The Glory” (a song added to the 2007 London revival) on a local fishing dock.

Still, there would be no Parade without Leo Frank and his wife Lucille at its core, and not only are the songs Brown wrote for the couple among the musical’s most powerful and memorable, the performances of Ryan Black and Elizabeth A. Bouton as Leo and Lucille are this production’s strongest and ultimately the best reason to see (and tell friends to see) Kentwood Players’ Parade.

Black, best known in recent years as the charismatic showman behind 88s Cabaret, vanishes astonishingly inside Leo’s introverted, socially inept skin, the sore Northern thumb that stands out amongst a sea of Southerners he can’t begin to fathom. Black’s acting is subtle and commanding, and his renditions of “How Can I Call This Home,” “It’s Hard To Speak My Heart,” and “Sh’ma” have the power to break hearts.

As Lucille, the wonderful Bouton blossoms from timidity to valor, her beautifully sung “You Don’t Know This Man” and “Do It Alone” providing two of the evening’s most heart-wrenching moments. Bouton’s three duets with Black (“What Am I Waiting For,” “This Is Not Over Yet,” and “All The Wasted Time” in particular) have the additional force of voices joined to awe-inspring effect.

Director Ben Lupejkis does admirable work with his large ensemble, which also includes Klair Bybee, MarLee Candell, Roy T. Okida, and Catherine Rahm. Parade’s chorus members are particularly strong when harmonizing under Rahm’s fine musical direction in numbers like “The Old Red Hills Of Home,” “Where Will You Stand When The Flood Comes,” and the show’s moving “Finale.” Individually, there are a number of cast standouts. Bybee creates a pair of distinctly performed characters, Dalton is a delight as Mary Phagan, Hatcher’s voice and physical presence are tremendous in “That’s What He Said,” Okida does noteworthy work as Officer Ivey, Schloming demonstrates youthful appeal as the Young Soldier in “The Old Red Hills Of Home,” Schwartz reveals one of the production’s finest voices in “It Don’t Make Sense” and as Dalton’s song partner in the charmingly flirtatious “The Picture Show,” and Wynn’s “Interrogation Sequence” is a potent one.

Kentwood’s Parade benefits from a larger cast (twenty-one in all) than the scaled-down-to-fifteen London revival, a production brought to the Mark Taper Forum in 2009, but this is still considerably smaller than the original Broadway cast of thirty-five, and I would have preferred fewer cases of a single performer playing two roles. For example, the doubling of Governor Slaton and reporter Craig didn’t work for me any better here than it did at the Taper).

Musical accompaniment by a live, onstage five-piece orchestra is particularly strong (conductor Chip Colvin and Diana Brownson on keyboards, Colleen Okida on violin, Patrick Weber on drums, and Oliver Karp on reed), though placing them so close to the audience can drown out voices in solos and duets, particularly for those seated close-up house left as a friend of this reviewer was.

Anna Rubin’s choreography is bright and bouncy and ingeniously designed to spotlight a cast where not everyone is a dancer, though the choreographer might want to rethink some brief mixed-race couples-dancing in the Act One finale, grounds for a lynching in the pre-Civil Rights South. Also, the Act Two dance sequence “Pretty Music” is staged more comedically than I would have liked.

Michael Allen’s set design is simple, reflecting budgetary limitations, but does the trick. Robert Davis’s lighting design is a fine one, with two instances where house lights are turned up proving particularly effective. A leitmotiv consisting of a quick lights-up/lights-down (as if committing moments to photo posterity) worked when accompanied by a camera-snap sound effect, but didn’t when on a number of occasions the sound effect was missing, at which time it simply appeared to be a lighting glitch. Parade’s scale and cast size prove a challenge to costume designer Kathy Dershimer, and though there are many fine choices, some men’s jackets and ties appear too contemporary for the show’s 1913 – 1915 timeframe and a number of women’s outfits span too many decades. Miller and John Beckwith did the show’s sound design.

Parade is produced by Victoria and Rocky Miller. James R. Crawford is stage manager and Lori Marple-Pereslete assistant stage manager.

Regardless of the abovementioned caveats, Kentwood Players deserves a big thumbs up for having the guts to stage Parade, and a standing ovation for Black and Bouton as its leads. Though not rising to the heights Parade can reach in a professional production, this is community theater at its most laudable, and a show well worth seeing.

Kentwood Players, 8301 Hindry Ave., Westchester.
–Steven Stanley
March 18, 2011

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