Finding a Culprit vs. Finding the Truth

We’re big fans of the work of Jason Robert Brown. We have seen most of the JRB oeuvre: “The Last 5 Years” (twice), “Songs from a New World”, and “13”. Last night we added one more production to the list: We saw the Neighborhood Playhouse’s production of “Parade”.

Parade tells the story of Leo Frank. I know many of you are going “Who?” Leo Frank was a Brooklyn-born Jew who moved to Atlanta Georgia to marry Lucille Selig and to be supervisor of the National Pencil Company. Leo was like many people today: bright, focused on his work, uncomfortable around other people and trusting only in himself, and just prefering to be left alone with his habits. This man couldn’t be a sociopath, could he?

So now picture Atlanta Georgia in 1913. It is Confederate Memorial Day, and everyone but Leo is celebrating (Leo is asking himself why there is such a celebration for a war that was lost). Leo goes to work to work on his books. A 13 year old white girl stops by his office to collect her pay. Leo doesn’t recognize her, but upon getting her employee number, pays here for the week: $1.20. Later that day, she is found crumpled in the factory basement, dead. Leo and Newt Lee, the night watchman, are brought in as suspects. The governor tells the DA they must have a swift verdict in this case. Not being able to find any evidence for the night watchman, and thinking the hanging of a black man wins few points in George, the DA lets Newt go. That leaves him with the man who must be the culprit: Leo Frank. The DA builds a case of coached stories to convince the jury, including the testimony of Jim Conley, a janitor at the factory who was an escaped convict with violent tendancies. He presents this case, and Leo’s lawyer doesn’t refute it: he just surprises Leo by having him make a statement, and then resting his case. Leo is found Guilty, and sentenced to death That’s the end of Act I. In Act II, the focus moves from Leo to his wife Lucille, who is surprising Leo with her strength and tenacity in defending his innocence. Lucille convinces the governor to commute Leo’s sentence; he does, although it is only to a life sentence. Leo is moved to an undisclosed prison, and Leo and Lucille’s love story grows. However some people in Atlanta are incensed about this “Jew” getting off, and the mob goes to the prison, drags Leo out, and hangs him. They then go off to celebrate Confederate Memorial Day.

As you can see, this is not a musical comedy. It is more of a musical drama, and the choreography is not kickup your heels dancing (except where appropriate) and more appropriate movement to music. It is a powerful story, which was made even stronger by the production at the Neighborhood Playhouse (which, by the way, presents its shows in fellowship room of a beautiful church on the bluffs in Palos Verdes). Walking into the room you are transported into a Georgia courthouse, with balustrades around the edges and defendents tables. The thrust staging is used to good effect, the audience is seated around the sides of the court, just as if they were visitors during the trial. This is where the story plays out, with the balustrades moving around to establish the locations, including the jail. It was a remarkable piece of set design, well lit and well used. The designers made excellent use of a space that is normally a simple parish hall with a stage.

The acting was equally strong: the production was fully professional, with the actors becoming the characters. All inhabited their roles, down to the lowest factory girl on the street during the parade. No one can be singled out with fault, although quite a few gave truly remarkable performances: Craig D’Amicoæ as Leo Frank, Emily Olson as Lucille Frank, Michael Hovanceæ as Hugh Dorsey (the prosecuting attorney), Loren Smith as Newt Lee, and Tareek Lee Holmesæ as Jim Conley. I also note the performance of James Larsen as Britt Craig — I was truly impressed by his timing in the Big News number, where he acted both drunk but danced precisely at the same time.

Other members of this remarkable cast were: Alissa Anderegg (Lila, Mary Phagan), Michael Tushaus (Young Soldier, Starnes, Fiddlin’ John), David Fairchildæ (Old Soldier, Judge Leonard Roan), Gordon Wellsæ (Officer Ivy, Peavy), Ryan Amador (Frankie Epps), Laura Hathaway (Mrs. Hugh Dorsey), Keith Barletta (Reporter), Ian Littleworth (Reporter), Chris O’Connor (Tom Watson – Editor of The Jeffersonian), Michael Tatlockæ (Governor John Slaton), Jessica Plotin (Sallie Grant Slaton), Ross Love (Riley), Aileen-Marie Scott (Mrs. Phagan), Lizzie Jester (Lizzie Phagan), Michael Prohaskaæ (Luther Rosser – Defense Attorney), Alison Matizza (Mrs. Luther Rosser), Tawny Dolleyæ (Angela), Megan Dorn-Wallenstein (Iola Stover – a factory girl), Carly Menkin (Essie – a factory girl), Marcy Agreen (Monteen – a factory girl), Rachel Baumsten (Betty Jean), and Rashel Mareness and Leslie Morris as Slaton’s Debutantes. This was a very large cast for a very small space and small theatre, and the choreographer is to be complemented for moving them all well.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

“Parade” featured a book by Alfred Uhry, with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. It was co-conceived and directed on Broadway by Harold Prince. At the Neighborhood Playhouse, the production was directed by Brady Schwind assisted by Christen Lea Jackson, with Choreography by Imara Quiñonex. Musical direction was by David Saterin, who conducted a backstage orchestra who were remarkable. The remarkable set was by Michael Tushaus (one of the actors). The period costumes were by Karen Cornejo. The lighting design was by Michael Juneau (with lighting board operation by Aileen Kamoshita, who was so kind to talk with us afterwards). Sound design was by Michael Aldapa. The stage managers were Nancy Ling and Shannon Kelly.

“Parade” continues at the Neighborhood Playhouse until July 27.

So what’s upcoming on our theatre calendar? Next up is “Looped” at Pasadena Playhouse (Sat 7/26 @ 8pm). This will be followed by “Singing in the Rain” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (Sat 8/2 @ 2pm), and “Assassins” at West Coast Ensemble (Sun 8/10 @ 2pm). In September we’ll be seeing “Vanitites” at the Pasadena Playhouse, and I hope to ticket “9 to 5” at the Ahmanson (HotTix go on sale in August). September will also bring “Of Mice and Men” at Repertory East.