note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
I hope you didn’t let this “Parade” pass you by.
F.U.D.G.E. Theater Company Inc.’s moving, dramatic, production of Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s acclaimed two-act musical, “Parade,” was superbly performed recently at the Arsenal Center for the Arts Black Box Theater.
“Parade’s” theatrical marshal’s versatility is boundless. Founding Artistic Director Joey DeMita directed this sensitively performed, hard-hitting production, which he also choreographed. He designed the sparse set, using a silhouetted background, opaque scrim, wooden chairs and two tables to depict a factory office, jail cell, a courtroom, street parade, governor’s mansion, judge’s estate, a modest home, and isolated lynching scene. DeMita punctuates all this with his multi-hued lighting to change scenes from dreary to foreboding, incendiary, to loving and ethereal.
Besides Tina Cersosimo’s handsome period costumes, Music Director Steven Bergman on keyboard conducts a talented six-piece band that resonates in every number.
When “Parade” was originally performed on Broadway in 1998, with 40 actors and 20 musicians, it won the Tony Award for Best Book and Score, which isn’t surprising for Uhry, perhaps the only writer to earn a Pulitzer Prize, Tony and Oscar.
Although its Broadway run was brief, “Parade” is enjoying a successful resurgence in small professional and community theaters. In 2007, a London theater company downsized the production to accommodate smaller companies.
The true story upon which “Parade” is based is an ugly blot on America’s legal system, specifically in Marietta, Ga., in 1913-15, where they continued to celebrate (Confederate) Memorial Day on July 4, resented and scorned Northerners, Blacks and Jews, and secretly continued to fight the Civil War in their hearts. The ensemble’s opening prelude heralds the first celebratory parade and fervor of 1862.
Uhry, who also wrote the acclaimed “Driving Miss Daisy,” based on his grandmother, recalls the tragic story of her friend, Lucille Frank, and her visits to his home. He decided later to write the story about her and her husband, Leo, who was incorrectly accused of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old factory girl, (innocently portrayed by Tristyn Sepersky) and lynched by a mob.
The story is so chilling, and Brown’s music so compelling, it’s more frightening to realize it actually happened. The records are archived in Brandeis University’s library; and in the theater lobby, F.U.D.G.E. displayed copies of newspaper articles, headlines, magazine stories, and photos of key people involved in Frank’s trial.
Although she was a non-practicing Jew, Lucille married shy, conscientious, religious, bespectacled Leo from Brooklyn, who felt alienated down South and yearned to return to New York. Lucille’s uncle hired Leo to manage his pencil factory. When Mary was murdered there, shortly after visiting Leo’s office to collect her weekly pay, he’s accused of killing her. Mirroring the 1692 witchcraft hysteria, young female workers accused Frank of trying to lure them into his office, in their haunting refrain, “Factory Girls/Come up to My Office”.
The wheels of yellow journalism, racism, resentment and hysteria churn faster, with individuals’ political and personal goals stoking the public’s fury. Drunken, down-at-the-heels journalist Britt Craig (nicely portrayed by Ross Brown, who also portrays the governor), wants to revive his career by sensationalizing the story. Ambitious district attorney Hugh Dorsey (Ken Orban), wants to fast-track his path to the governorship; black repeat criminal Jim Conley deliberately lies at the trial, hoping to reduce his sentence on the chain gang; and a bloodthirsty mob can’t wait to lynch the Jew.
Kelton Washington in the dual roles of conniving criminal Conley and frightened nightwatchman, Newt Lee, is superb, as is Kira Cowan as the Franks’ black housemaid, Minnie. This handsome young couple make beautiful music together.
So does Lori L’Italien as Lucille and Adam Schuler as Leo. Their voices soar, outlining their pain, frustration, fear, determination, and admiration for each other. Also outstanding is Matt Phillipps in dual roles of Mary Phagan’s boyfriend, Frankie, and a young soldier.
Kudos to F.U.D.G.E.‘s cast and crew.