Friday, June 02, 2017

Doing Musical Justice to an Historic Injustice, Writers Theatre Stages a Terrific 'Parade' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a musical
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru July 2

With its book written by noted playwright Alfred Uhry--who authored both the stage and screen versions of Driving Miss Daisy, along with much else--and music & lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, the somewhat deceptively-named musical Parade had a surprisingly short Broadway run (less than three months) starting in late 1998.

I became aware of the show, and its grim subject matter, when I enjoyed a local production at Chicago's Bailiwick Theater back in 2004.

That introduced me to the tragic tale of Leo Frank, a Jewish, Brooklyn-bred factory manager in Atlanta, who in 1913 was accused--unjustly, per most accounts at the time and since--of murdering a 13-year-old employee of his, Mary Phagan.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
So named due to a Confederate Memorial Day parade taking place in town around the same time, Parade musically chronicles Frank's discomfiture in the South, his interaction with Mary in giving her a paycheck shortly before her awful death, his arrest and trial infused with Anti-Semitism and political posturing, and the devotion of his wife Lucille despite a previously distant relationship.

It's far from an upbeat, or even typical, musical, but one whose renown has far exceeded its commercial success on Broadway.

Composer/lyricist Brown went on to create The Last Five Years, 13 and stage musicals of The Bridges of Madison County and Honeymoon in Vegas, the last a collaboration with acclaimed Chicago-based director Gary Griffin, who Brown enlisted to helm a 2015 Lincoln Center concert version of Parade.

From that, Griffin--who has directed many scintillating versions of Sondheim musicals at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater--was inspired to develop a full-fledged staging within the beautiful new confines of Writers Theatre, specifically in their Alexandra G. and John D. Nichols Theatre space.

And with a cast full of stalwart local performers, many of whom I've often enjoyed elsewhere, this is presumably about as good a rendition of Parade as one is likely to see.

The always stellar Patrick Andrews is terrific as Leo Frank, depicting life-shattered bewilderment mixed with a steely determination in professing his innocence.

And as Lucille, Brianna Borger is excellent, with her moving take on "You Don't Know This Man" truly one of the show's musical highlights.

Two other such highlights--"That's What He Said" and "Rumblin' and a Rollin'--feature Jonathan Butler-Duplessis as Jim Conley, a factory employee who who is enlisted as a star witness by prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (Kevin Gudahl, first-rate as always).

(Historians seem to pinpoint Conley as the likely actual murderer.)

Many in the cast play multiple roles, and with old pros like Larry Adams, Derek Hasenstab, Jeff Parker and McKinley Carter all sublime, I particularly enjoyed Derek DeSantis--who is sensational as a sensationalist newspaper reporter--Butler-Duplessis, Jonah D. Winston (as Newt Lee, a factory nightwatchman) and young Caroline Heffernan, who plays Mary Phagan.

Given the dour real-life tale of gross injustice and communal bigotry--I'm being a bit oblique about what transpires with Leo Frank for dramatic sake, but history knows it isn't good--Brown's score is understandably short on buoyancy (which isn't to say it's downbeat either, especially as Lucille's dedication makes for some fine love songs). 

Yet even with everything performed wonderfully, including by an unseen orchestra, Parade for me is a shade below the very best musicals.

But especially when done this well, it is an important show to see well-beyond the entertainment it provides, and it's eerie how acutely resonant Parade's century-old events still feel.

Obviously, musicals about true, terrible episodes, and tragic miscarriages of justice--such as Kander & Ebb's The Scottsboro Boys, which I saw earlier this year--aren't meant to make you leave the theater high on life.

Just a bit more understanding of it, at its worst, but also appreciating those who counteract the awful, such as Lucille Frank and, in different ways, artists who devote themselves to creating and producing insightful pieces of theater such as Parade.

With the known talents of Brown, Uhry, co-conceiver Harold Prince, Griffin, musical director Michael Mahler and numerous cast members, I expected this Parade to be rather remarkable.

But the weight of expectation can sometimes be a burden, and it's to the credit of everyone involved at Writers Theater that I think I've now seen this important show performed as well as I likely ever will.

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