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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Parade and Red Herring


Ben Dibble
Photo by Mark Garvin
Parade takes place a hundred years ago, but in many ways the Arden Theatre's new production of it feels utterly contemporary. In part that's because the story it tells—of murder, prejudice, and injustice—keeps getting played out to this day. In part it's because Jason Robert Brown's insistent score bustles with urgency and imagination. And in part it's because Jorge Cousineau's video projections in the Arden's production give the story an added dimension. A large, antique-looking gilded frame dominates the stage; in it is a video screen on which we see scratchy, flickering images that look as if they could have been filmed a century ago. These images take us into a stately governor's mansion, a prison camp, and anywhere else the story takes us; at one point a character on-screen has a conversation with a live actor, and the effect is seamless. At another point, two characters ride down a street in a trolley, and as we see them sitting still on a bench, the screen behind them shows the rear view out of the trolley as it rides down the street. It's a splendid blend of live action and computer animation—the kind of innovative storytelling that makes director Terrence J. Nolen's production something special.

Parade tells the story of a notorious murder case in 1913 Georgia: 13-year-old Mary Phagan was murdered at the pencil factory where she worked for ten cents an hour. The factory manager, Leo Frank—an aloof Northern Jew who had never been accepted by local society, and vice versa—was arrested for the crime and subjected to a prosecution that depended more on anti-Semitism than evidence. While the story is dramatic—and Alfred Uhry's book for the musical makes it gripping and suspenseful—it's also gloomy, with a dark tone that the authors rarely try to lift. It doesn't help that, as portrayed here, Leo Frank is remote and hard to relate to (until things start to turn his way halfway through act two). But Brown's stirring and uplifting music—blending elements of ragtime, folk traditions and religious hymns, all unified by his strong lyrics and melodies—ends up deepening the story. Songs like the intensely beautiful ballad "All the Wasted Time" speak to the indomitable spirit that allows Leo Frank and his wife Lucille to rise above the bleakness of their predicaments. And the cast is filled with strong voices that do justice to the score: Jeffrey Coon, whose booming tenor raises the show's temperature as he plays a reporter singing about "Big News"; Michael Philip O'Brien, who rouses the crowd in the anthemic opening number "The Old Red Hills of Home"; Derrick Cobey and Kenita R. Miller, who inject a bluesy forcefulness to "A Rumblin' and a Rollin'"; and Jennie Eisenhower, whose urgent soprano becomes undeniably affecting on "You Don't Know This Man," Lucille's anguished song of support for her husband.

Despite that big video screen, Parade isn't a flashy show, and Nolen's direction is more concerned with the relations between the characters than with big production numbers. Ben Dibble gives a restrained, dignified performance as Leo, and Eisenhower gives resolute support as Lucille. There's also good work from Anthony Lawton as the determined prosecutor and Scott Greer as the governor who comes to question whether justice has been served.

Parade isn't uplifting, but in the end it is powerful, and the Arden's production is a feast for the eyes and ears.

Parade runs through November 3, 2013, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $36-$48 (with discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, or online at www.ArdenTheatre.org.



Victoria Rose Bonito
Photo by Paola Nogueras
Michael Hollinger's comedy Red Herring premiered at the Arden in 2000 (with Scott Greer in the cast) and has been a success in regional theatre ever since. It's a parody of the tough film noir thrillers of the forties and fifties—Raymond Chandler is mentioned a couple times, and the plot has almost as many twists as one of Chandler's novels. But Hollinger has more on his mind than just nostalgia. Red Herring is also a sharp satire of the anti-Communist hysteria of the fifties. (That title, you see, has two meanings ... or is it three?) Despite the multiple targets, director Harriet Power's production for Villanova Theatre is remarkably focused—and remarkably funny.

It's 1952, and hardboiled homicide detective Maggie Pelletier is investigating a murder on the Boston docks. Her beau, G-Man Frank Keller, is snooping around a spy ring. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, clean-cut physicist James proposes marriage to his sweetheart Lynn—who just happens to be the (fictional) daughter of that legendary Commie hunter, Senator Joe McCarthy. But James also shares a secret with Lynn: he's a Soviet spy. "That's so glamorous!" says Lynn. "Wait till I tell Daddy!" Eventually, all three storylines intersect in a plot that mixes marriage, microfilm, mistaken identity, a bridal salon, a nuclear test in the desert, and a box of Velveeta.

It's all suitably wacky, and Hollinger's short scenes, crisp dialogue, and sharp wisecracks keep things interesting. Director Power makes the twists and turns of the plot easy to follow and the comedy never feels forced, even when it makes a turn into physical shtick. Jerold R. Forsyth's moody lighting projects shadows from venetian blinds across the stage, making whodunit fans feel right at home.

Victoria Rose Bonito is sturdy as Maggie, trying to solve the crime and be taken seriously as a woman in a man's world. Everyone in the supporting cast plays multiple roles; Julie George-Carlson gets the best comic opportunities as the repressed Mrs. McCarthy and an uninhibited landlady who may be a murderer. But Raymond Saraceni, with his large frame and distinctive goatee, has too distinctive a look to move effortlessly between characters. Sophia Barrett strikes some poignant notes as a good girl who's not as innocent as she seems.

Red Herring wraps up its plot threads a little too tidily and happily in its final scene, as if Hollinger suddenly remembered that this is a comedy. But for the most part, Red Herring is extremely satisfying.

Red Herring runs through October 13, 2013, at Villanova Theatre, located in Vasey Hall on the Villanova University campus in Villanova, Pa. Tickets are $21-$25, with discounts available for seniors, students and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 610-519-7474 or online at www.VillanovaTheatre.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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