While many colleges and communities around the country are currently presenting safe and well-known titles in their summer theater programs, the rural town of Wilmington, Ohio (located about 45 miles northeast of Cincinnati), is tackling the serious and challenging musical Parade.
Wilmington College - Community Summer Theatre is a partnership between faculty and students from the local university and residents of the town. The surprise that such a group would choose such a daring and important piece to present is surpassed only by the delight in finding that the final product is so moving and well-rendered.
Parade, which played much too short a time on Broadway in 1998 (with an equally too brief national tour), is based on the true story of Leo Frank. Frank, a northern Jew living in Atlanta in 1913, is falsely accused of the murder of a young girl who worked at the pencil factory he managed. The show focuses on Frank's trial, his wife's diligent efforts to free him, and their search for justice, despite bigotry, cultural differences, religious intolerance, and political motivations. However, of equal importance is the relationship between Leo and his wife Lucille, which only begins to blossom once he is imprisoned.
The score for Parade is by Jason Robert Brown, and earned him the Tony Award for Best Score. Mr. Brown has garnered much praise for his work, which also includes the Off-Broadway efforts Songs For A New World and The Last Five Years. His songs for Parade are intelligent and poignant in both words and music, while also managing to be extremely tuneful and memorable. Brown incorporates many styles in the score including southern anthems, marches, African-American spirituals, dixieland, waltzes, blues, and ballads. Musical highlights include "Come Up To My Office", "The Old Red Hills of Home", and "All The Wasted Time."
Alfred Uhry, known better for writing plays such as Driving Miss Daisy, provides an insightful and gripping book which likewise won him a Tony Award for Parade. A southerner himself, Mr. Uhry is able to realistically capture the true essence of the South. He tells a compelling story and uses several effective devices, including a few fantasy scenes to play out the false accusations made against Leo Frank. Uhry also wisely emphasizes the human tragedy within the plot, providing both a historical perspective and a love story. The lead characters change and grow during the course of the musical and are written with enough depth to allow the audience to care and invest in the outcome of their struggle.
The bulk of the credit for the success of Wilmington's production of Parade must go to Director (and Musical Director) Steven F. Haines. Nearly every decision Mr. Haines has made regarding the staging of the musical enhances the material. Attention to the small details is apparent in every scene, with each character fully realized and three-dimensional. The emotional disgust shown by the factory girls during "Come Up To My Office" is chilling. Mr. Haines has chosen to use the position of the audience to represent both the unseen parade that passes by and the area of the jury in the courtroom, with each choice proving theatrically effective. A perfect balance between the talented nineteen-piece orchestra and the cast allows for each and every word to be audible and intelligible.
A nearly fifty member cast fills the stage and allows for only minimal doubling of roles. In the leading roles of Leo and Lucille Frank, Scott Amen and Tricia Heys provide strong vocals and suitably emotional portrayals. If their delivery of dialogue lines is less polished, the pair is nevertheless effective. The production's finest performance is that of Bryan S. Wallingford as reporter Britt Craig. Mr. Wallingford sings with great confidence and displays wonderful timing. As Jim Conley, Galen Gordon is a bit too over-the-top in his two big numbers, but is a crowd-pleaser. Also giving solid performances are Matt DiBiasio (Frankie Epps), Abby Hisem (Mary Phagan), Cheryl Cooper-Darragh (Mrs. Phagan), David G. Beck (Judge Roan), J. Wynn Alexander (Hugh Dorsey), Jack Filkins (Governor Slaton), Timothy Larrick (Tom Watson), and Brian Johnson (Newt Lee).
The attractive set design by J. Wynn Alexander differs from most productions of Parade. A physical representation of the large tree that is referenced throughout the show is absent here. Instead, all of the scenes are staged using three columns, a few larger mobile pieces (the jail cell, judge's bench, a staircase), and various window frames to differentiate each location. In place of the large tree prominent in most mountings of the show is a unique lighting effect that shines the shadows of leaves and branches onto the stage. This accomplishment and the rest of the fine lighting, as well as the sound design, is professionally provided by Becky Haines.
Parade is a well-crafted and thought-provoking musical. In the hands of Director Steven Haines, a fine cast and a winning production team, the Wilmington College - Community Summer Theatre staging is an outstanding and pleasurable example of the possibilities of the collaboration between a university and community in creating entertaining theater.
In Jason Robert Brown's latest musical, The Last Five Years, one scene takes place in an unnamed town "40 miles east of Cincinnati" and that location is disparaged for being a boring place to be stuck. Well, if Mr. Brown had seen this production of his most famous musical in Wilmington, which isn't too far away from that geographical description, he might have written a different lyric. Parade ran from July 18 - 27, 2002 at Boyd Auditorium at Wilmington College.