By PAM HARBAUGH
Antisemitism and corruption collide into Titusville Playhouse’s spellbinding and artful production of the modern musical, “Parade.”
Wait. Don’t start thinking clowns and jugglers and people on floats. This is an unsettling drama and the title is ironic. The music is frequently minor and not especially melodic. Most of it is hard driving. So, yes, this is not your grandfather’s Titusville Playhouse. However, this is the most exciting show the company has done since their “Les Miserables.” Coincidentally, both deal with injustice and have a strong undercurrent of virtue and love.
This seldom produced musical has book by Alfred Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy”) and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (“The Bridges of Madison County”). Both men won 1999 Tony Awards for their work on this musical. Co-conceived and directed by Harold Prince, it debuted on Broadway in 1998 and ran for only 85 performances. Here’s hoping the same “lack of commercial appeal” doesn’t afflict Titusville Playhouse’s production because it is sensational.
Set in 1913 to 1916 in and around Atlanta, the storyline is based on actual history. It revolves around a Jewish factory superintendent named Leo Frank, who is accused of murdering 13-year old Mary Phagan. Spurred on by antisemitic sentiment, a corrupt judicial system succeeds in convicting Frank for the crime he did not commit.
Granted, this rather morose subject matter may not serve the conventional stuff of musicals. You feel rising anger at how the police get “witnesses” to lie in court. You know that the growing tenderness between Frank and his wife, Lucille, is only setting the stage for yet more heartbreak. And the climax will shock those who don’t know the musical or the actual story.
In the hands of director Steven Heron and his talented cast and design crew, the show is artistically potent.Alexander Nathan brings to the stage a good, complex portrayal of Leo Frank. While he is at one point fastidious, he charms the next when he says to his wife: “For the life of me, I cannot figure out how God created you Southern and Jewish at the same time.” In the courtroom fantasy sequence conjured up by lying witnesses, Mr. Nathan drops his character’s proper behavior to show him a lecherous man trapped by uncontrollable sexual impulses. Later, he digs into deep emotion in his big song, “Leo’s Statement — It’s Hard to Speak My Heart.” Natalie Palmer’s Lucille Frank exudes womanly affection, tenderness and strength. While the musical itself is a cold examination of this historic injustice, Ms. Palmer’s stage presence warms the story. It is she who brings the most human moment in the scene where Lucille takes a picnic lunch to her husband in jail and sings “This Is Not Over Yet.” Alvin Jenkins nearly steals the show as Jim Conley, the escaped convict who agrees to lie on the witness stand. Although only a high school senior, Mr. Jenkins has all the theater goods. In addition to being handsome and strong, he has a powerhouse voice, a solid stage presence and good, believable interpretation of the material. Here, his two songs, “That’s What He Said” and “Blues: Feel the Rain Fall,” make you grab your program right away to find out just who this talent is. We expect to see big things from this young talent.
Alexander Browne charms as Frankie Epps, the young man who has a flirtation with Mary Phagan. This is a terrific vehicle for Mr. Browne. His stage allure is so much better served here than in his previous TPI show, “Carousel.” And, he’s also turned loose more here than he was as Marius in “Les Miserables.” In “Parade,” he can handle the cute “The Picture Show” number with young leading man appeal; but he can also deliver the dark emotions such as those when his character derides “The Jew” in “It Don’t Make Sense” and “Frankie’s Testimony.”
Mark Hardin fleshes out the cruelty in Hugh Dorsey, the ambitious prosecuting attorney. William Merklinger brings a fine touch to Gov. John Slaton, the only character in the story who has a true arc. Gregory Galbreath is Tom Watson, the publisher who proudly claims “Jesus was not a Jew.” As Judge Roan, Steve Jackson has a fine turn with Mr. Hardin in “The Glory.”
Other standouts include Traci McGough as Mrs. Phagan, the mother of the murdered girl; Melinda Lebo as Iola Stover who lies that Frank sexually harrassed her; Fiona Chalmers as pert and innocent Mary Phagan; Brian Hancock and Pilar Rehert, terrific in “Rumblin’ and Rollin'” — a song about northern agitators wanting to take up the cause of the Jewish man while turning a deaf ear to the oppressed plight of the Black community.
Music director and conductor Spencer Crosswell brings chills with his fine chorus. In fact, the musical presence is so strong you’ll be hard pressed to use the word “amateur.”
From tight spots and eerie funereal glow, to muted colors and stark moments, the lighting design by William Gibbons-Brown carves dimension and accelerates Mr. Heron’s artistic vision. So, too, does Jay Bleakney’s effective scenic design, which employs a large, two story structure evocative of an old courthouse and the ominous silhouette of a tree.
This is a stellar production. It ranks with those “Don’t miss this” artistically bold shows like Melbourne Civic Theatre’s “A Delicate Balance” and The Henegar’s “Spring Awakening.” So…yes…make sure you head to Titusville Playhouse to see “Parade,” before it passes you by.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Parade” runs through May 25 at Titusville Playhouse, 301 Julia St., Titusville. Tickets are $22 to $25 with $2 discounts for seniors, military and students. Call 321-268-1125 or visit www.TitusvillePlayhouse.com.