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Chicago by John Olson

Parade

Also see John's review of I Never Sang for My Father

With the announcement of the 2003-04 Tony Award nominations just a week away, the chance to see one of recent history's least known and least-seen winners of major Tony categories for a musical couldn't be better timed. Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown's Parade, originally directed on Broadway by Hal Prince in the 1998-99 season which had little competition among new musicals, won awards for best book and score some four months after its closing (while Fosse, a bookless revue without original songs, won Best Musical).

Parade had a brief national tour the following year, but its scheduled run in Chicago was cancelled. The show is finally receiving its Windy City premiere in David Zak's ambitious and impressive production by the Bailiwick Repertory Theater. It's an uncompromising, powerful piece that deserves a place in the standard repertory. Whether or not it gets that may depend upon the willingness of musical theater and opera companies to risk audience avoidance of such emotionally challenging material and the extent to which the score and its composer attain a reputation over the coming years.

The musical recounts the story of Leo Frank (Nicholas Foster), a northern-born Jew living in 1913 Atlanta, who was convicted of the murder of a thirteen-year-old girl. Two years after his death sentence was commuted to life by Georgia Governor John Slaton, Frank became the victim of a lynch mob that broke into his prison. It seems the whole affair of Frank's arrest and conviction was essentially a lynch mob in which a public still stinging from the Union's defeat of the South nearly fifty years earlier became outraged over the brutal murder and was only too happy to believe in the guilt of a Jewish Yankee. Opportunistic newsmen and politicians fed upon the fears and bloodlust of the community. Though other Prince-directed musicals have used the chorus as antagonist (the crowds of Evita, the prison guards of Kiss of the Spider Woman), one could make the case that Parade's ensemble is in fact the main character, and a frightening one at that.

Zak has put as many performers on stage as he can fit, just seven fewer than the Lincoln Center production's cast of 37. The volume of their singing is overwhelming, the quality of the voices is impeccable, and most ensemble members have a solo moment in which to prove their contribution to the whole. They're backed by a five-piece orchestra that amazingly captures the texture of the score with just a piano, keyboard, percussion, violin, and trumpet. Musical direction is by Alan Bukowiecki.

Nominally, the leads of the show are Foster as Leo Frank and Amy Arbizzani as his wife Lucille, but Uhry's book does little to flesh the characters out. This seems a conscious choice to focus on the historical facts rather than fictionalizing them. Leo Frank does appear to be a decent person, but the authors seem more concerned with the larger issue that mob thinking led to the conviction and murder of an innocent man. In this incident, his personality, actions or values apparently had little to do with his fate and accordingly are not particularly relevant. Would the lynching have been more acceptable if Frank were unlikable?

Before Paradelanded on Broadway, there were high hopes that such a distinguished (Prince, Uhry) and promising (Brown) creative team would produce a ground-breaking new musical. Ironically, the Broadway production's short run may have been a result of the fact that they did just that. In creating a hybrid of the concept musical and the traditional plot and character-driven musical, they may have suffered from misdirected audience (and critic) expectations.

The voices and ability to sell a musical theater song are solid throughout the cast, in leads and supporting players as well as the ensemble. The cast has rougher going when the music stops, though. Foster, a solid singer/actor here and in other roles I've seen him play, adds little to the part that Uhry gives him. In Leo's initial scene, Foster appears as nervous about simply going to work as he does after he's been arrested for murder. It's not until act two that he moves away from a few set mannerisms as Leo and Lucille fight to save his life. Arbizzani as Lucille shows more range, but like most of the supporting players, fails to add much texture to her role beyond the surface the script suggests.

Jamie Axtell (the corrupt district attorney) and Rus Rainear (the incompetent defense attorney) have potentially juicy roles that they fail to adequately mine. Sean Reid, as the newsman who stokes the flames of this mania, gives a lot of energy but too heavily uses a single device of walking while leaning backwards to look slimy (remember how Mr. Natural used to "keep on trucking?"). Among secondary players, Ronnie Duncan is the standout as the chain gang fugitive janitor the DA persuades to give false testimony against Leo.

All is well, though, when the performers have Brown's score to guide them in their interpretations, and that's most of the time in this music-heavy piece. Director Zak has spared little expense in giving us a visually appealing production with detailed period costumes designed by Jeff Jones and the sort of big-cast tableaus Prince favors. The energy and conviction of the production keeps us engrossed, even without a greater degree of empathy for the falsely accused Leo Frank.

Zak does raise the ante on Prince a bit at the show's finale, in which Brannen Daugherty, who plays the slain girl's suitor Frankie Epps, enters to reprise "Old Red Hills of Home," an anthem to Georgia. Zak has him dressed not in period costume but in a contemporary black sleeveless T-shirt with a Confederate flag printed on it. Is he reminding us that prejudice is alive and well in the American South or is he showing how long it can take for the scars of war to heal? Is this intended to give us a warning of the consequences of the current U.S. military actions, for yet another reinterpretation of pieces written before our country's middle-eastern interventions? (Discussion of the Broadway revival of Sondheim's Assassins is a case-in-point). I suspect Prince, whose mark is so evident on this piece and who is so associated with musicals of ideas would be happy to see Paradespark this kind of discussion.

Update: The Bailiwick Repertory Theatre's production of Parade has transferred to the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago. Performances are Wednedsays through Sundays June 2nd through July 18th. Tickets $30 - $40. For further information, visit www.ticketmaster.com or call 773-252-1070 .

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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