Dancing on their Grave: A Sad Remembrance of How the South Used To Be

This afternoon we saw our second production of the weekend, “Parade” at the Mark Taper Forum. This was our second time seeing “Parade” (the first was the Neighborhood Playhouse production in July 2008). It was also our first time in the Mark Taper Forum since their big remodel; our last show in the Taper was 13” in January 2007. So some compare and contrasts are in order.

Let’s start with the Taper itself. The Taper did a complete tear-down and remodel, and the new Taper is beautiful. I don’t think there’s a bad sightline in the house. The front abalone shell wall is still there, but the rest of the foyer looks much more modern. Supposedly the restrooms are much better, but I didn’t visit. You could see the technical improvements in the new soundboards, lighting, and the larger sets. A beautiful theatre.

Now, to the production. As I wrote last time, Parade tells the story of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn-born Jew who moved to Atlanta Georgia in 1913 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. The play opens on 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 her 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.

The original production was the original Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry. The Taper production was the Donmar Warehouse version. This latter version made some changes in the presentation (JRB’s summary of the changes) and staging. Some aspects of the story were toned down (such as the reporter’s drunkenness, or Lucille’s pregnancy), and the cast was cut down by having characters play multiple roles. A new non-speaking role was added of a ghostly Southern bell that drifts in and out of scenes. These change the tone and focus of the piece to something darker and more focused, especially in the second act. It heightens the antisemitism of the Southerners, and the ghost provides a commentary on the old ways of the South (although that wasn’t clear). The change in tone worked. The doubling of actors, at least how it was done here, didn’t… because it was too hard, at times, to distinguish who was who in what role because the costumes were so similar. If doubling of roles is to be done, there need to be distinct character costumes, or the artiface of calling out the character’s name a few times needs to be inserted to reorient people.

Another aspect of the staging became an interesting commentary on the piece, at least to me. When they buried Mary Phagan, they opened up the floor of the stage, revealing the coffin. After they replaced those panels, the dancing continued apace. It seemed to be a commentary on the proceedings: the southerners of Atlanta dancing on Mary’s grave to lynch a man unjustly who had actually done nothing to Mary. It stuck with me the entire musical.

Parade” is not a big theatre piece — it is too heavy for an 1200-1600 seat theatre. We last saw “Parade” in an 99-or-less seat theatre, and the intimacy made one feel like they were in the courthouse, and made the piece especially moving. The Taper is around 750 seats, making the proceedings a little less detached and the action broader and less intimate. It didn’t spoil the drama of the piece, but lessened it at little.

Luckily, the acting was pretty good. The leads were T. R. Knight as Leo Frank and Lara Pulver as Lucille Frank. Knight captured the New York nebbish nature of Leo well (I kept thinking Matthew Broderick as I heard his voice), and Pulver had Lucille down pat. Knight’s singing was a little weaker than at the Neighborhood Playhouse, but still strong. Other individual castings were less individually memorable, due to their duel castings, but all were excellent: Brad Anderson (Officer Ivey, Luther Rosser, Guard); Michael Berresse (Governor Slaton, Britt Craig, Mr. Peavy); Will Collyer (Ensemble); Charlotte d’Amboise (Mrs. Phagan, Sally Slaton); Karole Foreman (Ensemble); Davis Gaines (Old Soldier, Judge Roan, Guard); Laura Griffth (Ensemble); P. J. Griffith (Officer Starnes, Tom Watson); Curt Hansen (Young Soldier, Frankie Epps, Guard); Deidrie Henry (Minnie McNight, Angela); Christian Hoff (Hugh Dorsey); Sarah Jayne Jensen (Ensemble); Lisa Livesay (Monteen); Hayley Podschun (Iola Stover); David St. Louis (Newt Lee, Jim Conley, Riley); Rose Sezniak (Lila, Mary Phagan); Phoebe Strole (Essie); Josh Tower (Ensemble); and Robert Yacko (Ensemble).
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

Turning to the technical side: the sets and costumes (designed by Christopher Oram) were a step above the simple Neighborhood Playhouse set: there was a lower portion representing the street with tables coming on and off representing various, umm, tables. There was an upper area that served as the factory office, court, and dock. Costumes were reflective of the time and worked well. The lighting design was that of the original Donmar production by Neil Austin and was simple with ambers and purples and some harsher white lighting. I particularly like the shrinking square of light over Leo during questioning and the back mural of the Confederacy. The musical director was Tom Murray, who led the 9-piece offstage orchestra. Music and lyrics were by Jason Robert Brown, with orchestrations by David Cullen. Sound design was by Jon Weston, based on the original London sound design by Nick Lidster and Terry Jardine. Wigs and hair were by Carol F. Doran.

The beautiful movements of the show were choreographed by Rob Ashford, assisted by Chris Bailey. The production was directed by Rob Ashford, assisted by Stephen Sposito. The production stage manager was David S. Franklin (who was kind enough to invite my daughter and her technical theatre friends backstage afterwards), assisted by Michelle Blair and Susie Walsh.

Parade” continues at the Mark Taper Forum until November 15, 2009. Tickets are available through the Center Theatre Group, and may be available through discount sources such as Goldstar or LA Stage Tix (I don’t know for sure). We had Hottix, but I don’t know if they are sold out yet.

Upcoming Theatre: Next weekend we will see two productions: “Guys and Dolls” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on Saturday October 24 @ 8pm, and “Meeting of Minds” Episode #9 (Martin Luther, Plato, Voltaire, Florence Nightingale) at the Steve Allen Theatre on Sunday October 25 @ 8pm. Halloween weekend is currently open, as is the first weekend of November. November 11th (Veterans Day) we’re at a Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum. The following weekend Erin is going to the TMBG concert at UCLA, while we will attending Havdalah with Peter Yarrow at the American Jewish University. On November 22 at 2pm we return to REP East Playhouse for “M*A*S*H”, followed by the next installment of Meeting of Minds (pending ticketing). Thanksgiving weekend is currently open; however, it might be taken by a shift of our production for the following weekend (“Baby Its You” at the Pasadena Playhouse, December 5 at 8pm… which, by the way, features the actress who played Marie Antoinette), due to the fact I head out the morning after we see it for ACSAC in Hawaii. That same weekend (December 3, 4, 5) also brings “The Taming of the Shrew” at Van Nuys HS — we’ll likely be going to the Friday, December 4 performance. I fly out to Hawaii for ACSAC on 12/5 (hint: registration is now open and we have a great technical program — so come to the conference). While there, I hope to get together one night with shutterbug93 and see some local theatre. I return 12/12 (and, alas, this is why we can’t see Equus at LA Valley College the weekends of 12/3-5 and 10-12). The rest of December is currently open, but I know that sometime in December I’ll be attempting to ticket “Mary Poppins” at the Ahmanson (HotTix were supposed to go on sale 10/23, but may not as per the postscript below). As always, I’m looking for suggestions for good shows to see, especially if they are on Goldstar or LA Stage Tix.

An interesting postscript to the above: There may not be HotTix to “Mary Poppins”. According to my contact in Audience Services at CTG, Disney and Center Theatre Group are in the midst of negotiations for HotTix. Disney is not in favor of having discount tickets and CTG would like to continue the HotTix program for this show. I’m waiting for the final answer on this, but we might be up in the balcony for that one.

Disclaimer: In light of the upcoming rules, you should know that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.