a theatre, film & pop culture review
Attending the theatre was one of Abraham Lincoln’s sole respites during a harried and demanding presidency. Though he believed tragedy was better read than performed, I can’t help but think he would approve of Parade, Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s 1998 musical of the notorious, true case of Leo Frank – a Jew tragically accused in 1913 of the rape and murder of a young girl in Atlanta, a proud city which had yet to concede its loss in the war which had occurred nearly fifty years prior. Ford Theatre’s production of Parade (co-produced with Theater J), which opened this past weekend in the nation’s capital, launches the theatre’s Lincoln Legacy Project, a five year initiative that includes a mainstage show each season focused on issues of tolerance, understanding and acceptance – all ideals Ford Theatre celebrates as the cornerstones of the 16th President of the United States’ legacy (which I discuss further in the upcoming October issue of American Theatre).
Parade raises issues of anti-Semitism, yellow journalism and racial injustice, among others, which I’ve already discussed a little bit here and a lot a bit there, so there’s no sense in being redundant. If you’ve never seen the musical, this production, directed by Stephen Rayne, is serviceable, with some glaring errors and a couple happy highlights.
The cast enters the house at the top of the show inexplicably mingling and chatting with the audience before ascending the stage, facing out, and bowing their heads until the drum roll of the “Old Red Hills of Home” sounds. Then, raising their heads to indicate (naturally) that they are now in character and ready to begin, they thus — most thankfully — conclude the showchoir portion of the evening, and begin to sing in full, glorious voice.
In what is then a bit tiring to watch, Rayne proceeds to consciously stage each number in a different space (though strangely excluding the house after that initial cast entrance), exerting effort to utilize the entire expanse of the stage and Tony Ciseck’s simple but effective bi-level set to full effect. And while a few choices were questionable — as in “A Rumblin’ and Rollin'” when Angela and Riley refer to the newspaper for the latest Leo Frank news (despite historical plausibility, this rings dramaturgically false) — and though the pace could be quicker and the musical entrances more solid (these will likely tighten as the run continues), the nuts and bolts of the story — and there are many — evolve clearly and methodically under Rayne’s direction. Unfortunately, the characters too often teeter towards cartoonish, with Karma Camp’s choreography shouldering a large portion of the blame.
The production’s biggest misfire, Camp’s choreography is amateurish at best and tasteless at worst. On the novice end: “Real Big News” has an unenthusiastic Chris Sizemore as the drunk, loose-cannon reporter Britt Craig (one hopes for the charm and high-energy of Norbert Leo Butz), surrounded by a trench coat-clad cast running around in circles, clasping open newspapers to and from their chests (more showchoir); “Pretty Music,” which should showcase Governor Slaton as charming and light on his feet (Stephen F. Schmidt was neither), instead has him unimpressively spinning various ladies in circles, fumbling through even the most basic steps; and the disturbingly jubilant cakewalk that proceeds Frank’s guilty verdict becomes an awkward, circling mob, lifting chairs overhead and thrusting them shakily at Frank.
On the vulgar side, Euan Morton as Leo Frank and one of the actors playing a factory girl are forced to mime fellatio during Frank’s imagined seduction of the girls in “Come Up to My Office;” and Kevin McCallister as a strangely effeminate, non-threatening Jim Conley (and a disappointing Uncle-Tom-like Newt Lee) actually humped the floor repeatedly, making obscene gestures with a pickaxe in the sexually-charged, chain-gang-inspired “Feel the Rain Fall.” A less literal-minded, more imaginative choreographer would have elevated this production instead of cheapening it.
Despite its shortcomings, this Parade boasts two standout performances, and quite thankfully, they’re the leads, Euan Morton and Jenny Fellner as Leo and Lucille Frank. Euan’s Leo, the most “Jewish” I’ve seen, begins tense and nervous — all wringing hands and agitated head twitches — but softens rather quickly to become the most demonstrative as well, revealing an almost generous fondness of his wife. Both Morton and Fellner exude uncertainty and confidence in equal measure, a quality that can be attributed to their youthfulness, as well as to an accuracy in portraying the couple (he was 27 at the time of Mary Phagan’s murder; she, 23). Fellner (dressed gorgeously by Wade Laboissonnier, if impractically — the over-sized sideways-sitting hats blocked her face from the audience on a handful of occasions) carefully transitions from the careless Southern belle wife to the unstoppable defender of her husband, and she does it all with a beautiful, powerful voice.
But, really, the reason to see this Parade — if you’ve already attended a strong production of the musical — is the history of Ford’s Theatre, which can’t help but heighten the power of the piece, both emotionally and politically:
Pray on this day as I journey beyond them
These Old Red Hills of Home
Let all the blood of the North spill upon them
‘Till they’ve paid for what they’ve wrought
Taken back the lies they’ve taught
And there’s peace in Marietta
And we’re safe again in Georgia
In the land where Honor lives and breathes
The Old Red Hills of Home
To hear these lyrics –glimpsing out of the corner of your eye the box covered in bunting, preserved in honor for nearly 150 years — while remembering the words of the man who fought tirelessly for freedom and a unified country:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
With all that powerful history in one room, how could you not be moved? While Parade may not seem the obvious choice for a typical season opener, for Ford’s Theatre, it’s certainly ideal.