Monday, March 14, 2016

"Parade" - March for truth and justice!

The cast of Parade (Ken Holmes)
Sound Theatre Company
(at 12th Ave Arts)
Through March 26, 2016

Parade is such a cheery name for a musical! However, it is the wry, unsettling, ironic title of a true-life musical story of Southern small-town bigotry and a still-unsolved murder mystery! Written by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry, this 1998 Tony winner is being presented by Sound Theatre Company and is the first musical mounted at 12th Avenue Arts.

First, the history: In 1913, Leo Frank (Jeff Orton), a New York Jew who moved and married in Marietta, Georgia, is a town outsider. When 13 year-old Mary Phagan (Delaney Guyer ) is found murdered in the basement of the pencil factory Leo runs, the night watchman is questioned, and Leo. With virtually no evidence and a town full of people willing to lie to convict someone, town prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (Brian Lange) gets a death sentence for Leo’s supposed crime.

After Georgia’s governor, John Slaton (Jordan Jackson) looks into the case and commutes Leo’s sentence from death to life imprisonment and transfers Leo to another prison, a mob breaks in and hangs Leo back in Marietta.
The notoriety of the case gave rise to two opposing organizations: the KKK and the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish defense organization. It is still a well-known case to many Southerners, today.

The musical focuses on the relationship between Leo and his wife, Lucille (Tori Spero). They begin in a careful marriage, with a stiff-necked and awkward Leo (Orton plays him as irate and unbending about his innocence and outraged that anyone would believe the lies). As the musical goes on, as Lucille demonstrates her courage and ability to work to save his life, Leo begins to appreciate her and fall in love more deeply. Several songs show the progression of their relationship.

The heartbreak of the case is more acute after Leo’s sentence is commuted and Lucille believes that there could be more ways to get the case overturned with more work. The “mob” takes that possibility away and applies the “justice” of the original death sentence.

Director Troy Wageman, choreographer Scott Brateng, and music director Nathan Young had a huge job to tackle in creating this multi-character musical with gorgeous music that does not match what the singers sing! (The rich, complex score seems sometimes to directly contradict matching the singers’ notes – a daunting challenge for the performers.) They pull it off with a clean, minimal staging (set by Richard Schaefer) with the actors sitting on the sidelines throughout the entire production, and a two-sided audience that becomes the jury  during the first act trial.

The enthusiastic cast does everything it can to propel the story forward, aided by sometimes jaunty music that helps keep the piece from bogging down into sobbing misery. Some of the younger women are newer to the Seattle audiences having recently graduated from producing entities like Village Kidstage. Standouts in the smaller roles include Ben Wynant as a young suitor, Guyer, Victoria Rosser as a maid, and Ann Cornelius as Mary’s mother.

But the bulk of the performance rests with Orton and Spero who allow plenty of room to grow into and fulfill their love as the musical progresses. Spero shows development of strength and grace through adversity that shines. Lange does well at being a bad guy who doesn’t care if there is real evidence or not to convict.

The musical remains pertinent for many reasons, but artistic director Teresa Thuman remarked that she didn’t realize exactly how pertinent it would be at this moment, as mob-incitement looks increasingly like it could infuse our presidential campaign season. This musical could be a great teaching moment, even to young teens, reminding us that truth does matter, and just because a majority thinks something doesn’t necessarily make them right.

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