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Anthony Chase: Strong voices lead the way for ART's 'Parade'

"Parade" is a powerful and famously difficult musical. Written by Alfred Uhry with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, the show was first done in 1998, and tells the story of the trial and lynching of Jewish factory superintendent, Leo Frank. In 1913, Frank was accused of murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan, one of his employees. The show is a clear descendant of such Kander and Ebb musicals as "Cabaret" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," which shine bright lights onto dark stories.

American Repertory Theater of WNY seems to have a penchant for difficult musicals. Why do "The Fantasticks" when you can do  "Hello Again," "First Lady Suite" or "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"? This show is right up their alley.

The show has been staged minimally, but is ambitious nonetheless. Under the direction of Matthew Refermat, with music direction by Donald R. Jenczka and choreography by Carly Luksch, ART uses 13 actors, a piano, percussion, a woodwind player and two French horns.

The story centers on the relationship between Frank and his wife, Lucille, winningly played here by real-life husband and wife, Jordan and Melissa Levin. In Act One, we see the corrupt forces of Georgia government and the machinations of prejudice railroad Frank to an unjust conviction. In Act Two we see the relationship between Leo and Lucille grow into a true loving partnership.

The ART production advances Jason Robert Brown’s sumptuous score to the forefront. At times, this is sublime. There are other times, however, when a lack of balance between instruments and voices makes lyrics undecipherable. The problem is exacerbated by the ubiquitous problem of today’s young actors not learning to project their voices beyond their tonsils. The opening sequence, "The Old Red Hills of Home" and "The Dream of Atlanta," was virtually unintelligible.

Happily, this does not characterize the entire evening. "Parade" boasts some strong singers. These performers did not require amplification, or maybe their body mikes were actually working.

Jordan Levin is a very talented man who is often cast in eccentric comic roles. He is quite perfect as Leo Frank, bringing him dignified gravity and showing impressive range. His journey from stuffy and unsympathetic fussbudget to loving husband and hero is convincing and moving. His emotive command of his musical numbers is very pleasing.

Melissa Levin has a clear and expressive voice with accurate pitch. She is lovely as Lucille, and delivers every scene and song squarely. She is especially fine with the show’s best number, “You Don’t Know this Man,” in which she speaks of her husband’s goodness to a reporter. I was also impressed with her onstage grace. Her pivotal number, “Do it Alone,” is staged with her moving in toward Leo and back again. She reminded me of a Queen gliding across a chessboard.

Not all husband-wife teams have onstage chemistry, but the Levins do. Their interactions help heighten the emotional stakes. Their duets are stirring.

The rest of the company works as an ensemble, doubling in roles.

Elise Vullo projects innocent sweetness as doomed young Mary Phagan.

Other highlights come from Tim Goehrig, particularly in his jazzy reporter persona, but also as Governor Slaton, who ends his political career by commuting Frank’s sentence.

Lucas DeNies gives a sincere performance as Mary’s teenaged suitor.

Marisa Caruso catches the eye with her stage presence as she morphs herself into multiple characters, including Mrs. Phagan.

Nicholas Lama plays oily and opportunistic Hugh Dorsey to great effect.

Chris Cummings is engaging as Frank’s well-intentioned but ineffective good ol’ boy attorney.

Brandon Williamson gives a complex and bright performance as a factory employee and probable murderer turned prosecution witness.

Joseph Spahn gives an energetic spin to his portrayal of Tom Watson, the creepy anti-Semitic publisher of an extreme right-wing newspaper.

Brittany Bassett, who has been appearing on Buffalo’s stages with accelerating frequency, is entirely charming as Governor Slaton’s wife and entirely loathsome as a girl bearing false witness.

Talia Mobley plays contrasting characters, including the Frank’s servant, who is coerced into making false statements.

Matthew LaChiusa, executive director of ART, acquits himself admirably as multiple characters.

The minimalist staging places focus onto the actors with vivid intensity. Luksch’s choreography serves the production admirably, advancing the story and providing visual variety. Costumes by Katherine Butler are quite effective.

One bit of advice I would give to any theater company using the TheaterLoft space: don’t stage anything very important on the upper level.  Not ever. That little space swallows scenes whole and makes them seem 100 miles away. The sweet spot is downstage.

With its demanding score and emotionally raw story, "Parade" is a grand undertaking. Sound issues aside, ART has staged a strong production of this eloquent and moving musical, with some uncommonly good performances.

THEATER REVIEW

"Parade"

3 stars (out of four)

Presented by American Repertory Theater of Western New York through April 13 at TheaterLoft, 545 Elmwood Ave. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Tickets are $25 general, $15  for student and industry. Call 983-4345 or visit artofwny.org.

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