Dr. Blackwell's BLOG

Monday, October 31, 2011

Theater Review: Parade at Ford’s Theater

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 01:40


I am speaking at the American Public Health Association conference this week in Washington, DC. I have planned my trip to DC several months ago after being notified that my proposal was accepted. And I also learned around that same time that the musical Parade, one that I have desperately wanted to see for a long time, was going to be produced at the historic Ford’s Theater (the famed location of President Lincoln’s assassination); consequently, I assured myself I would finally see Parade and planned my trip accordingly. Parade originally opened on Broadway in 1998. The show was directed by famed stage director Harold Prince (The Phantom of the Opera) and was produced by the massive (yet ultimately bankrupt) Livent Productions, the same production company behind RagtimeParade is one of those few musicals that achieves what only a few others ever have; it is so effective, chilling, and haunting, it creates an atmosphere that is strikingly unpleasant, yet beautiful. And that unfortunately resulted in its inability to be a commercially successful Broadway production; it’s life at the Vivian Beaumont Theater was cut short after only 84 performances.

The story of the show centers around the true life events of the 1913 murder of 13-year old Marietta, Georgia factory worker Mary Phagan and the subsequent framing and anti-Semitic-driven conviction of the factory’s Jewish superintendent, Leo Frank. The south was rife with extremely racist and anti-Jewish sentiment at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Jews were considered greedy industrialists who abused laborers, including children, for their own financial profit. This mixed with the racially-charged hatred of Blacks in the South sets the somber tone of Parade. The DC production is headed by Tony-nominee Euan Morton, who plays the idiosyncratic Jewish mannerisms of Frank perfectly well. His acting and singing are amazingly on-target as is that of Jenny Fellner, who plays Franks’ wife Lucille, who would become the heroine of the story by the Second Act. The supporting cast is as strong as the principle actors, particularly the performance of Kevin McAllister, who plays Jim Conley (who ultimately was largely believed to be the real culprit of Phagan’s murder).

The music of Parade is outstanding. The score took home the Tony in 1998 and it was obviously well-deserved. The first number (“The Old Red Hills of Home–Part 1”) is a simple ballad that eventually leads into a march-like ensemble number (“The Old Red HIlls of Home–Part 2”) which serves to introduce the still bitter post-Civil War Georgian White citizens of Marietta. But perhaps the most moving numbers come later in Act One. Phagan’s funeral scene is riveting and the number “Funeral” not only displays the sorrow of the friends and family she left behind, but their growing anti-Semitic hatred and bloodthirsty quenching for revenge. And when Frank is on trial (“Trial IV”), his character bursts into a musical over-the-top depiction of the false behaviors being described by the witnesses testifying against him that while providing some comedy relief, is also chilling. The Second Act is also supported by strong numbers, particularly “Rumblin’ and a Rolin.” This is the Act’s opening number that shows a desperate Lucille Frank interrupting a drunken ragtime dance party in the Governor’s Mansion in an attempt to save her husband’s life. Again, writer Alfred Uhry (who won the Tony for Best Book of a Musical in 1998 for Parade) knows how to take his audience on an emotional roller coaster–he manipulates the audiences’ craving for gaiety and  any semblence of lightheartedness and quickly replaces it with the grim reality of the situation.

In the end, Parade is a highly effective piece of musical theater that depicts an event in American history that was a pathetically perfect example of a hatred-fueled misjustice. The show uses a score that is just as moving and unsettling when it is extremely simplistic as it does when it is more grand. The Ford’s Theater production of Parade couldn’t have been any better. I was honored to be able to see the final show of its run. The story, music, and near-perfect direction and performances left me speechless; and this show really moved my spirit. Theater can make an enormous impact and reach down into your soul and truly make a mark on your psyche when it is executed perfectly. The Ford’s Theater Production of Parade certainly left me with an experience I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

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