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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Arizona Regional Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's review of Rent

Mary Ott and Seth Tucker
Photo by Jason M. Hammond / JALT Media
With anti-Semitic threats on the rise and a recent weekend with two mass shootings, in which one was aimed apparently at Hispanic immigrants, Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry's 1998 musical Parade, which focuses on outright bigotry and the hatred, lies and false accusations aimed at an outsider who is a Jewish man on trial for murder in 1913 Georgia, proves, unfortunately, to be incredibly timely. Arizona Regional Theatre presents an exceptional production of this Tony Award winning musical, with a superb cast led by Seth Tucker and Mary Ott.

The musical is based on the real-life story of Leo Frank, a Jew from New York who marries into a Georgia family and works as a supervisor in a pencil factory in Atlanta where he oversees many teenage female workers. When one of them, 13-year-old Mary Phagan, is found dead in the factory, Leo is accused of raping and murdering her. The musical depicts how made-up accusations, media bias, outright lies, and hatred for those who are outsiders can blow up into a frenzy of sensational statements, with the accused immediately believed to be guilty in everyone's eyes.

The events happened over the years from 1913-1915 and the show is set firmly in the shadow of the Civil War, opening with the townspeople celebrating Confederate Memorial Day as they honor their lost Civil War heroes. We also see how the people in this Georgia town band together to rally against outsiders and "Yankees." There is also the portrayal of deeply religious town leaders acting un-Christlike in their actions.

Alfred Uhry's book, which beautifully weaves together dozens of characters and the facts of Leo Frank's trial, and Jason Robert Brown's stirring, sweeping, and emotionally rich music and lyrics work well together to portray this heartwrenching story and the unfortunate truth of what can result from years of hatred and prejudice. Uhry, best known for writing another Southern drama set in Georgia that also features a Jewish main character, Driving Miss Daisy, had first-hand knowledge of the events of Leo Frank's trial, as his uncle owned the factory where Frank worked. However, as interesting as the show is, it is also a little hard to swallow at times when you know that almost everyone is lying and, I believe, the downbeat ending doesn't quite pack the emotional wallop the creators seem to want you to feel. There are also some facts that came out years after the events depicted in the show that, if they were added as a coda at the end, would give the audience a slightly more positive feeling and a sense of hope.

Director Phillip Fazio has found a sensational cast for this production and is presenting the revised version of the musical Uhry and Brown created for the London production, which uses a much smaller cast in comparison to the original Broadway production so just about everyone plays multiple parts—both good and bad. Fazio has also found a cast who sing very well and have no problems navigating their way through the sweeping and soaring score.

As Leo Frank, Seth Tucker has a glorious singing voice and a firm stage presence, delivering a beautiful portrayal, even though Leo can be difficult to like at times due to his being impatient and incredibly short to those around him. As Leo's wife Lucille, Mary Ott has a soaring singing voice and does a good job depicting this woman who doesn't quite know how to act once her husband is jailed. Ott also does quite well in portraying the strength and determination that Lucille finds.

The superb ensemble features Jesse Berger as the ultra-sleazy district attorney Hugh Dorsey, who does whatever he can to win his case even if it's illegal, and Teddy Ladley as both Britt Craig, the reporter who sensationalizes the case, to Leo's detriment, and Governor John Slaton, who comes to his defense. Pierre Brookins has a voice that soars as the shady ex-con Jim Conley, and Michael Schauble is full of fire as the anti-Semitic, ultra-religious businessman Tom Watson. Nellie Shuford infuses style and grace into both the Governor's wife Sally and Mrs. Phagen, Mary's mother. Charlie Rabago is winsome as the boy who is sweet on the murdered girl. D. Scott Withers brings gravitas to the roles of Judge Roan and an old confederate soldier, and J. Roger Wood plays multiple parts, including Leo's lawyer, with ease. Jaelyn Brown, Amanda Glenn, Kathlynn Rodin and Savoy Antoinette do quite well as the murdered girl and other girls who work at the factory, and Loren Battieste, Jonice Bernard and Lauren Berman round out the cast.

Fazio's direction derives emotionally rich portrayals from the cast that are full of passion and pain. He uses the aisles in the theatre to open up the show which, at times, make us feel part of the jury or the Memorial Day parade crowd. He also wisely uses the sides of the stage to portray various locations, which helps tighten up the pace of the piece and makes the set changes speedy. Under Steve Hilderbrand's excellent music direction, the cast all deliver beautiful harmonies and rich, soaring solos, and the small group of musicians deliver lush notes that sound like a much larger orchestra. Kayla Etheridge and Kimberly Sheperd's costumes and props feature period-perfect designs and fabrics, and Jordan Daniels' lighting design is beautiful with a lovely use of shadows. Jerrad Stutzman's sound design derives clear dialogue, lyrics and music from the cast and orchestra.

Parade may not be a completely perfect musical, and it is one that is somewhat uncomfortable at times to watch, but it does an exceptional job in depicting the ugly undertones of prejudice and bigotry that were present 100 years ago. Unfortunately, the feelings represented in the musical are still very much in existence today as is the rush to accuse a person of something they may not be guilty of. You only have to look at how the lies and accusations in the show are eerily reminiscent of many of the inaccurate, hate-filled tweets from our current president and many leaders to see just how relevant and timely Parade is.

The Arizona Regional Theatre's Parade, through August 18, 2019, at Third Street Theatre, Phoenix Center for the Arts, 1202 N 3rd St., Phoenix AZ. Information and tickets for this production are available at or by phone at 602-698-8668

Directed by Phillip Fazio Musical Direction by Steve Hilderbrand
Lighting Designer: Jordan Daniels
Costume Design and Props: Kayla Etheridge and Kimberly Sheperd
Sound Design: Jerrad Stutzman

Leo Frank: Seth Tucker *
Lucille Frank: Mary Ott
Mary Phagan: Jaelyn Brown
Frankie Epps: Charlie Rabago
Governor John Slaton/Britt Craig/Mr. Peavy: Teddy Ladley
Mrs. Phagan/Sally Slaton: Nellie Shuford
Tom Watson/J. N. Starnes/Young Confederate Soldier: Michael Schauble
Hugh Dorsey: Jesse Berger
Jim Conley/Riley: Pierre Brookins
Newt Lee: Loren Battieste
Judge Roan/Old Confederate Soldier: D. Scott Withers *
Luther Rosser/Officer Ivey/Guard: J. Roger Wood
Minnie/Angela: Jonice Bernard
Iola Stover: Amanda Glenn
Essie: Savoy Antoinette
Monteen/Lila: Kathlynn Rodin
Lizzie Phagan/Ensemble: Lauren Berman

*Member, Actors' Equity Association