Parade is a tragic tale, with no upbeat situations or happy ending that allows us to leave the disquieting world behind. And yet as written by Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown – and powerfully staged by Boiler Room Theatre – it offers love and compassion amid hate and cruelty.
Director Sondra Morton has made full use of BRT’s intimate space to stage this show, with action taking place throughout the house. That, her casting and other touches indicate a clear vision and sharp execution.
Book writer Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) and composer/lyricist Brown (The Last Five Years) fashioned a musical around an infamous murder and subsequent lynching in Georgia nearly a century ago. But the blossoming relationship between the wrongly convicted Leo Frank (Paul J. Cook) and his wife Lucille (Megan Murphy Chambers) still shines amid terrible events that leave two innocent people dead, two families grieving and a city in turmoil.
That city is Atlanta and the year is 1913. Frank is a college-educated Northerner whose aloof manner and clear disdain for Southern mores has made him no friends at the pencil plant he manages; his loving Dixie-bred wife has tried without success to convince him that his lot in life might be happier if he was more accommodating.
One of the employees Frank supervises is 13-year-old Mary Phagan (Hope Dyra). We see them in a brief encounter when Phagan goes to his office to collect her pay; soon thereafter her lifeless body is discovered and in short order Frank – who in bigoted local eyes bears the twin scourges of being a Jew and a Yankee – is arrested, indicted and tried for her murder by ambitious prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (Matt Baugher).
Dorsey is not above witness coaching and other nefarious means of securing a conviction; he even blackmails escaped convict Jim Conley (Bakari J. King), Phagan’s likely killer, into making a statement that implicates Frank. Frank goes from being a man to a monster in the public eye, but the nightmarish ordeal reveals his humanity to his spouse and brings them closer.
This work and its current production have personal ties; Uhry’s great-uncle owned the pencil factory Frank managed, and the production’s dramaturge Jaz Dorsey is the grandson of the prosecutor, who later became the governor of Georgia. But even without those connections Parade feels quite personal because it acknowledges the basic truths that love builds and hate destroys.
Cook – who recently helmed an invigorating and imaginative Pippin for BRT – poignantly fulfills the demands of his character’s dramatic progression, opening up little by little to Lucille and the audience to reveal a person we can and do come to care about. “Leo’s Statement: It’s Hard to Speak My Heart” demonstrates Frank’s inner turmoil and Cook’s performance gifts; the number is charged with pathos.
Anyone who has heard Chambers sing knows the beauty, clarity and power of her voice; anyone who has seen her act knows her commitment makes every moment engaging. She is certainly in top form as Lucille, whether solo in “You Don’t Know This Man” or in duet with Cook on such songs as the spirited “This Is Not Over Yet” and the bittersweet “All the Wasted Time.”
Baugher (who recently gave a very touching performance as Father in the concert rendition of Ragtime at Street Theatre Company) is in fine voice and acting form too as the outwardly charming but ultimately villainous Dorsey. Dan McGeachy makes the most of his conscientious Gov. Slaton (who commuted Frank’s sentence of death to life imprisonment despite knowing the price he’d pay for that decision) while doubling as a Confederate veteran whose views on the matter are very different. Dyra, Josh Lowrey as her friend Frankie Epps and Jordan Ravellette as cynical reporter Britt Craig also shine among a very able cast.
But I must reserve the final acting critique for the incomparable King, who played Conley on opening night and will share the role during the run with David Davis. Watching Conley’s damning false testimony in “That’s What He Said” and his complete contempt for all society in “Blues: Feel the Rain Fall” is both mesmerizing and bone-chilling because of King’s searing portrayal. It’s another extraordinary appearance by one of this region’s most versatile actors.
Brown’s challenging, often discordant score (which along with Uhry’s book was a Tony winner) is filled with a variety of influences; in addition to blues there are flavors of pop-rock, folk, gospel and military marches. Musical Director Jamey Green (who even gets some onstage time tickling the ivories in the whiff-of-ragtime “Big News!”) and his fellow musicians – Doug Bright, Rick Malkin, David Shipps, Rob Adams, Tom McGinley, Charis MacKrell and Cana MacKrell – handle it all quite nimbly.
Add the usual sure-fire contributions of choreographer Lauri Gregoire, costumer Katie Delaney and set designer Corbin Green and you have a Parade worth attending. Yes, this is no feel-good musical, but one can feel good about seeing a show that contains such substance and is produced with such care by Morton and her talented colleagues.
Parade runs through Oct. 20 at the Factory at Franklin (230 Franklin Rd., Bldg. Six). Performances start at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; additional shows are scheduled for 2 p.m. Oct. 14 and 8 p.m. Oct. 18. Tickets ($27; $25 for seniors age 60 and up and students age 13 through college with ID; $21 for ages 3-12. Matinee prices are $2 less respectively; Tuesday admission is two-for-$27; and Thursday tickets are $17) as well as more information are available by visiting www.boilerroomtheatre.com or calling (615) 794-7744.