Review: O.C.’s Chance Theater Presents Emotional, Intimate Staging of "PARADE"

Review: O.C.’s Chance Theater Presents Emotional, Intimate Staging of "PARADE"

Michael L. Quintos

It is nearly impossible not to be emotionally affected by the events depicted in "PARADE,” the stirring, Tony Award-winning 1998 musical inspired by shocking actual events that took place in Atlanta, Georgia between 1913-1915. In it, the musical condenses the unfortunate legal battle of Leo Frank, a mild-mannered but anxious factory manager of Jewish decent, who is wrongfully accused and is later convicted for the brutal rape and murder of one of his 13-year-old employees, Mary Phagan. In the primarily divisive and highly-suspect-of-outsiders South, Frank's shockingly unfair trial becomes the talk of the entire state, a scandal that would rock news outlets and neighborhood gossip circles, and also further stoked already fiery anti-semitic sentiments deeply ingrained in the citizenry.

It's certainly a heavy, morose subject to wrap an entire musical around, which is probably why "PARADE" is so rarely produced despite its high-caliber book by Alfred Uhry and gorgeous music by Jason Robert Brown. But when the material is executed with emotional heft and interesting staging, the results can be powerful, gut-wrenching, and, most importantly, thought-provoking.

For the most part, Chance Theater's new production of this musical---which continues through July 30 in Anaheim, CA---achieves all these feats quite handily.

I personally have only ever experienced this musical in larger theaters with large sets and a huge ensemble, so to see this little-known story play out in the more intimate footprint of Chance Theater's Cripe Stage, is in itself an exciting opportunity to experience the show at its most vulnerable and at its most exposed state. As soon as characters enter into our view---whether they are main players or merely in the periphery of narrative importance---there's very little to hide. Their facial tics and body language can sometimes speak volumes, even if they're tucked away in the far corner.

This theatrical exposure is almost like an understood metaphor for the times in which this musical takes place. The South---with its long history of subjugating whole races into slavery and fighting a war to keep that way of life---is often a place where prejudices are unapologetically out in the open, and where someone like Leo Frank, a man so obviously uncomfortable with his surroundings, is himself unable to hide his disdain for the very people who look at him with immediate suspicion and detestation for being a Jewish Yankee (there are times that Leo himself even comes off as snobby, holier-than-thou, and more educated than his neighbors--- though in his defense, he's not that far off).

More likely to hear "howdy" than "shalom," Leo is definitely out of his element.

Though the South certainly does not hold a monopoly on its disdain of "outsiders," history suggests that their communities certainly seem to be quickest to jump to such sentiments. It is this kind open hostility towards people that are different that makes Leo's existence in this place doomed from that start.

Using an imposing but mostly bare antiqued-wood platform by scenic designer Fred Kinney (which pretty much takes up most of this intimate theater's space to stage the action), Chance's production of "PARADE"---under the precise yet sensitive direction of Kari Hayter---lets the cast and their exposed performances tell and, well, sing the story, allowing the audience to focus on each character's feelings about the events happening around them without the distractions of huge sets.

Very interestingly, though, the production also uses many chairs repositioned and repurposed here and there as props, set pieces, and, yes, furniture---reminiscent of how chairs are similarly utilized in productions of “THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS” and “THE COLOR PURPLE,” two recent productions whose themes also touch on prejudice in the South.

Here, unobstructed in this open setting, it's hard not to notice a mother's anger, a wife's anguish, an alleged (other) suspect's guilt, powerful men's malicious intentions, nor a wife's quest for justice. It's also hard to look away watching a man who in his daily life is so much more controlled and stoic suffer through an accusation he knows is untrue and yet he knows he may not be able to overcome because of who is and where this crime took place.

However, as stirring as it is being able to see every characters' emotional journeys in the raw, the "exposed" nature of this production also has a side-effect that may not be that flattering either. Perhaps my only gripe with this otherwise satisfying production is that there are fleeting moments when I am taken out of the story--and the gravity and seriousness of the events transpiring--because of my own inability to ignore the fact that much of the cast is played by actors far, far too young to play the reality-based characters they're supposed to be embodying.

Maybe all that Georgia heat and humidity really causes people to look decades younger than they are, but because the proximity of the audience to the actors is sometimes mere inches/feet away, it's hard to ignore the age disparity, making it very difficult to buy that certain characters are in their mature 50's and 60's (old age make-up/wigs may help, maybe?) despite their best efforts in mannerisms and acting abilities. It doesn't help matters either when actual mature actors are standing side-by-side next to the younger actors---and they're supposedly playing generational peers.

Alas, despite this recurring trait that sometimes becomes a distraction, this "PARADE" still evokes an air of artistic flair.

The musical starts off with a gripping bang, thanks to the terrific vocal performance provided by Dillon Klena, later joined by the full ensemble in a choral opener that sets up the powerful mood of the drama about to transpire. Klena plays a young soldier about to go off to fight in the Civil War, singing "The Old Red Hills of Home," an ode of his love of his hometown and his sweetheart. Towards the end of the song, time passes and the young soldier morphs into an older soldier (Devin Collins), about to march in the annual Confederate Memorial Day "PARADE". It's clear that despite the decisive defeat against the North, the South is still very much stringent in hanging on to their past ideologies with passionate pride.

It is, of course, just this kind of mentality that further exacerbates such an unforgiving, prejudiced environment that Leo Frank (a superb Allen Everman) must try to endure. Leo, you see, reluctantly relocates from the comfort of his Brooklyn upbringing to Atlanta, Georgia, to live with his wife Lucille (Erica Schaeffer) and to work as the manager of the local pencil factory owned by his wife's family. Leo's irritation of being in Atlanta becomes a mutual feeling with everyone he comes in contact with, and has, sadly, put a strain in his marriage as well. As Lucille tries to make the best of the situation---even wondering whether marrying him was a mistake---Leo shuns her special plans for a holiday meal, opting instead to go into work (to his defense, it's not exactly his holiday).

Meanwhile across town, teenagers Frankie Epps (Klena, again) and Mary Phagan (Gabrielle Adner)---like most people their age---exchange flirtations in a trolley car, culminating in an invite to the "picture show." Mary tells her would-be paramour that her mother may have some objections to their pairing. But today, she's only got one thing in her mind: to get her paycheck at the pencil factory.

Much later in the evening, Leo and Lucille are awoken from their slumber by the arrival of Detective Starkes (Ryan Lloyd) accompanied by policemen. They insist Leo come down to the pencil factory immediately, though they deny him explanation. Upon arrival, Leo is shocked to be shown the lifeless body of his employee Mary Phagan, who, according to their initial assessment had been raped and murdered in the basement.

Though the police first suspect that the deed may have been done by Newt Lee (Robert Stroud), the night guard who first found Mary's body, Newt's initial questioning redirects the suspicion towards Leo instead---who, it turns out, has been Starke's target all along (ah, don't you just love people who jump to immediate conclusions based on nothing but being different?).

As expected, Leo is arrested soon after.

Mary's murder becomes the talk of the community overnight, giving way to an angry citizenry demanding to know why such a horrific tragedy against a young, helpless little white girl was allowed to happen. Unfortunately for the innocent but "outsider" Leo, the court of public opinion seems to have already weighed in, with no help from those tasked with searching for the actual truth.

Aside from Leo and those directly connected to these tragic events, many in the community are finding themselves quite invested in the outcome of the trial. The murder and subsequent funeral strikes curiosity with nosey news reporter Britt Craig (Mitchell Turner), seeing the scandal as an opportunity to further his career. Mary's crush Frankie, pained by the loss of a possible first love, leads the rallying cry to punish Mary's murderer. Extremist right-wing writer Tom Watson (Lloyd, again) is also motivated to see the case to justice, perhaps to prove his political stance against people who don't look and act like, well, his ilk. Georgia Governor John Slaton (Tucker Boyes) wants a quick resolution that won't derail the community's confidence in the justice system nor disrupt future elections. And ambitious local prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (Chris Kerrigan), eager to erase his terrible reputation as a frequent loser in court, desperately wants to solidify a conviction by any means.

Thus begins the smear campaign against Leo. First, Dorsey dismisses Newt as a possible suspect. Then he demands Starkes and his officers to round up any eyewitnesses, no matter the strength (or lack thereof) of their testimony. He even goes as far as bargaining with the pencil factory's shady janitor Jim Conley (Robert Collins), an ex-convict looking to get immunity for a previous prison escape in exchange for damning testimony against Leo.

What's even worse? There is some evidence that suggests Jim Conley himself may be responsible for Mary's rape and murder.

As the much-gawked at trial gets underway, Lucille, after a heartbreaking plea from her husband to stay by his side, watches as her husband is vilified in court. Dorsey puts on a very eye-opening show, providing the court supposed "witnesses" with one false testimony after another, culminating in Jim Conley's surprisingly detailed account of apparently witnessing the murder and then helping Leo cover up the crime.

In many ways, his trial felt like the Salem witch trials, where hysteria, hyperbole, and hearsay seems to carry more weight than actual investigative proof (which, if I'm correctly remembering, never actually even made it into the trial). Gosh, this sounds sooo familiar.

Despite an emotional, heartbreaking plea of innocence, Leo is, unsurprisingly, found guilty.

The second act focuses on Lucille's quest to solve the details of the case herself, while at the same time, finding herself falling more and more in love with Leo in the process. As she does her best to steer her husband's innocence to the forefront, their genuine affection, love, and---dare I say it---lust for each other continue to grow. She enlists the help of Governor Slaton personally, who after a change of mind and heart decides that there is much more to unearth in Leo's conviction.

But, like all tragic stories, despite what looks like progress towards a happy and fair ending becomes all too heartbreaking instead. As history recalls, Leo does not get his deserved ending---and to an extent, neither does Leo's wife nor, Mary, the victim.

If any part of this scandal is seeming a little familiar to one and all, it may be because this pattern of rush-to-judgment, tainted evidence, and, uh, unfair politically-motivated collusion in such high-profile cases has become so ensconced in our day-to-day briefing of life that very little of such things surprises us anymore.

This production of "PARADE,” of course, arrives at a time of exaggerated political uneasiness and further divisiveness, so it's hard not to look at this material and see parallels still haunting our daily lives now more than ever---for some more than others, naturally. Though the central target of the musical's tragic events is essentially a college-educated white man, his "other"-ness is still a huge reason for his unfair conviction. Even African-American characters in "PARADE" don't have things so easy either, allowing themselves a rare moment to breathe a sigh of (temporary) relief that the bigoted community leaders have their sights set on another "other" for the time being. The fact that at 2017, that "others" still have this fear so systematically imprinted is definitely a cause for alarm.

That is certainly one of the more obvious strengths of this production: the ability to shine a light on these recurring themes in an effort to learn from despicable past practices. It is often said that looking closely at our mistakes of the past for guidance should be automatic. But are we, though?

Emotionally resonant from start to finish, Chance Theater's admirably ambitious production of "PARADE" creates grandness in a smaller scale, yet its impact is still palpable. As in past productions I have seen of the musical, the effectiveness of its narrative partly rests on the empathy elicited by its portrait of Leo Frank, a complicated character with several layers of emotional baggage. On one hand, Leo is a wealthy, highly-educated, slightly elitist person with a visible chip on his shoulder having to "tolerate" the people around him whom he most likely deems "less than."  Rather than engage with the, um, common folk he must supervise each day in his capacity as a manager, he instead makes the best of his situation by creating a bubble around himself, so as to have little or no interaction with the people around him. In turn, this outward behavior---Leo's version of a security blanket---makes him all the more odd to the people around him, including his wife.

How ironic that he himself falls victim to a similar (albeit much more harmful) intolerance, not doing himself any favors by having a reputation for being cold, standoffish, and dismissive. Kudos to Everman for not overacting Leo's harrowing journey, but rather show the subtle ebb and flow between the deeply complex layers of a man just trying to put a semblance of order into his chaotic life, only to be handed a debilitating and ultimately deadly blow. Though the actor, at times does show his age physically, his level of acting maturity served the character very well.

Everman's performance elevates his co-stars' own performances in many ways, creating a fairly cohesive ensemble, many of whom have spectacular singing voices. Musical Director Robyn Manion leads a live backstage-hidden band that well suits this production's musical grandness. At the same time, Kinney's set is complimented well by Masako Tobaru's lighting design, Elizabeth Cox's period costumes, and the soundscapes designed by Ryan Brodkin. Visually and by its enveloping sound, this "PARADE" is creatively satisfying.

Overall, yes, the heartbreaking, fact-based musical is deeply morose and sometimes incredibly frustrating to watch as we witness injustice unfold in such an "acceptable" almost expected manner. It is no coincidence that the affectations and attitudes on display in this musical tragically still resonates in our world today, particularly in such angrily-charged times that has once again blasted the doors wide open for out-in-the-open prejudices. This is exactly why "PARADE" and its little-known tragedy needs to be seen and heard over and over again.

 

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.

Photos from Chance Theater's production of "PARADE" by Doug Catiller/True Image Studio.

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Chance Theater's Production of "PARADE" continues at the Cripe Stage through July 30, 2017. The Chance Theater is located in the Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center at 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, CA 92807. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.ChanceTheater.com.

 

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