The South: drawling pleasantries, belles in white flowing dresses, magnolia trees ruffled by a balmy breeze. Alternatively: damning profanity, bigots in white flowing robes, and lynched bodies hanging from blood-stained trees. Director Joshua R. McTaggart ’13, also a Crimson arts comper, melded these polarized facets of the South into a pageant of dancing, singing, condemnation, and retribution in “Parade,” which ran in the New College Theatre from April 14 to 17. The actors created a compelling narrative kindled by smooth directing and standout vocal performances, driving the musical’s ruthless critique of the concept of justice.
“Parade,” written by Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown, is based on the true story of Leo Frank (Elliott J. Rosenbaum ’12), a Jewish factory owner in Georgia accused of the murder of his 13-year-old employee Mary Phagan (MaryGabrielle Prezioso ’13). During a sensationalized trial, Frank is found guilty and sentenced to death. Thanks to the help of his wife, Lucille Frank (Amelia H. Ross ’14), Frank’s sentence is commuted by the Governor (Christian Ronald ’13) to life in prison. The Governor’s decision prompts an outburst of racist extremism, throwing the divisions of early 20th century Southern society into sharp relief.
Leo’s and Lucille’s relationship, which could easily have been forgotten in favor of the more flashy and seductive musical numbers, centered the whole production. While the story begins with Lucille worried about Leo’s coldness, the evolution of their love over the course of the trial felt genuine and effortless. Ross’s rich resonant tones in “What Am I Waiting For?” evoked a sharp contrast to the angry high vibratos of the witch-hunting townsfolk, and Rosenbaum’s neurotic portrayal of Leo was perfectly understated.
The other main actors slipped into their archetypal roles with grace. Anise Molina ’14 as Frankie Epps, Mary’s vengeful admirer, sung and moved with the strength of ruddy-faced youth and complemented Prezioso’s airy ankle-fidgeting innocence perfectly. Meanwhile, Phil M. Gillen ’13 as Frank’s prosecutor adopted an evil Billy Flynn-like persona that clearly cast him as the leader of the mob. While Molina stood out as one of the strongest voices, sometimes overpowering the rest of the chorus, all of the actors sung with passion and emotion.
The supporting cast, aided by jagged yet eerily flowing choreography, powered through the flashier numbers. “Real Big News” showed a darker side of human nature as the whole cast partook in a demonic war dance condemning Leo Frank. Britt Craig (Adam J. Conner ‘14), the journalist who covers the trial, energetically led the way in one of the show’s most sensational numbers. In contrast, the haunting “Come Up into My Office,” in which three girls testify that Leo propositioned them, showed Rosenbaum’s diversity as he easily assumed the Humbert Humbert role complete with his aghast ladies and gentlemen of the jury. The three girls circling him as he turned away from the audience created a tangible example of how the imaginations of the townsfolk could scapegoat an innocent individual.
However, the main triumph of “Parade” was the cohesiveness of all the different storylines, created by a two-storied set design. The movement of characters up and down each staircase, through the back onto the main stage, and the lowering of Mary Phagan’s coffin into a trapdoor all suggested a fluidity of people sinking and rising into their pasts and futures. Leo, who begins the musical working away in his tower, transitions to the lower level in prison only to end the musical on the second story once again with Mary as she takes his hand to form a partnership in martyrdom.
Sound was one of the production’s few flaws. Several times the orchestra overpowered the singing and the microphones simply did not work. While the cast tried their best to overcome these setbacks, the acoustics of the New College Theatre worked against them. Despite these technical errors, the musical direction of Sam R. Schoenberg ’13 matched well with the cast, and the orchestra deftly handled the variation of music from anthem to reel to dance to ballad.
The uniform quality of the vocal talent, piercing acting, and flowing movement and blocking made “Parade” a success, creating an unusually strong harmony between the trappings of musical theater and the thematic issues the piece so wrenchingly confronts. The direction of the play let the story of an innocent man condemned by bigotry take center stage instead of wallowing in superficial distractions.