Saturday, March 15, 2008

Parade (The SOB Review)

Parade (The SOB Review) - Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company & Theater Latté Da, History Theatre, St. Paul, MN

***1/2 (out of ****)

Nearly one decade has passed since the very brief, yet award-winning Broadway run of Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown's Parade was staged at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre.

Clocking in at just 85 performances there, I had to wait for the superb national tour with David Pittu.

But it was worth the wait. I found myself completely swept away by the chilling, yet beautifully told musical about a Brooklyn-born Jew named Leo Frank who, as transplant to Atlanta, was charged in the 1913 murder of one of his young factory workers, Mary Phagan. It's a story I could never quite shake.

What always struck a nerve with me was its harrowing depiction of America's grapple with bigotry. Whether racism or anti-Semitism, the underbelly of our nation's heritage has included some truly shameful episodes. In Parade, racism and anti-Semitism collide head-on in the pre-World War I South, where the religious belief in one's heart appeared to trump the color of his skin, allowing the true tale of Leo Frank to become a cause célèbre.

The tuner was finally performed last year to great acclaim in London, garnering seven Olivier Award nominations. As much as I had hoped to get there, I did not.

Fortunately, thanks to a chance encounter a couple weeks ago with Peter Rothstein and Denise Prosek of the Twin Cities' Theater Latté Da, I learned that their truly inspired little theatre company was performing this amazing, yet rarely seen work. It was my great fortune to take in a performance last evening. Since it is closing tomorrow, all I can say is that if you are presently in the vicinity of Minneapolis/St. Paul, you must do everything you can to see this rousing, stunning Parade.

Through Rothstein and Prosek's vision, Theater Latté Da has become the Twin Cities' leading company for presenting underperformed musicals. Think of it as a Midwestern version of New York City Center's Encores! And yet, this dynamic duo manage to conjure up their blend of magic with a fraction of the budget.

While they're short on cash, they're long on dreaming big. Bolstered by Prosek's exquisite musical direction, Rothstein is confidently at the helm in reimagining this musical, making Parade a stunning, towering achievement, not just for a small fledgling regional theatre, but for theatre, period. They have done the Uhry and Brown work extraordinarily proud and turned it into the type of show that burrows deep into your soul.

Thankfully, Rothstein and Prosek's dreaming extends where it matters most: from designers adept at doing so much with the deceptively simple (like Kate Sutton-Johnson's multi-tiered sets and Paul Hackenmueller's haunting lighting) to an exceptionally strong local cast of 25, guaranteed to take your breath away right down to some of the most minor of roles.

In fact, very early on in this production, you can't help but realize that this is not just some pedestrian group of actors. It's a cohesive ensemble that shines brilliantly throughout, not only in the abundantly talented leads of Leo Frank (Theater Latté Da regular Dieter Bierbrauer, who, if there is a quibble, it's that he can't shed his waspy looks) and his wife Lucille (Ann Michels), but especially in supporting roles like newspaper hound Britt Craig (Randy Schmeling) and Frankie Epps (Brian Skellenger), the boy who had a crush on the murdered girl.

Blessedly short on histrionics, Schmeling practically steals the show with his very real drunken "Big News!" And it's matched moments later by Skellenger's verisimilitudinous anguish in the heartwrenching "There Is a Fountain / It Don't Make Sense" sung pitch-perfect as Mary Phagen is laid to rest -- his performance was so believable, I found myself on the verge of tears. It's a wonder that Schmeling and Skellenger haven't already been scooped up by New York casting directors.

That they are complemented by splendid performances throughout -- including Caroline Innerbichler (Mary Phagan), Nathan Brian (Hugh Dorsey), Jody Briskey (Mrs. Phagan), Shawn Hamilton (Jim Conley), Reginald D. Haney (Newt Lee), George Muellner (Old Soldier/Judge Roan) and Kevin Dutcher (Luther Rosser) -- cements Rothstein's reputation, not only as an impeccable reinterpreter of seemingly minor musicals, but as a man capable of attracting and realizing the full potential of his gifted actors.

By far the best Theater Latté Da effort I've yet to see, it's my sad duty to report that there are but two performances left. So if you're anywhere near the Twin Cities this weekend, try not to let this Parade pass you by.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.

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At 16 March, 2008, Blogger Esther said...

Hey Steve:

Wow, this sounds like an amazing production. I wish I could have seen it. It proves again that there's great theater all over this country. I'm so glad you urged me to see "Parade" when it was put on in Boston last spring at SpeakEasy Stage.

I think the music is stirring and beautiful. I loved "The Old Red Hills of Home." Although when you listen to the words, it's kind of unsettling that you feel sympathy for the singer: "I go to fight for these old hills remind me of a way of life that's pure." Obviously, the way of life he misses wasn't great for everyone! One review I read said that you're seduced when you should be repulsed by the song's sentiments. I guess that's part of the genius.

Like you, I loved the supporting players, the actors who played Frankie/Confederate soldier and the reporter were especially terrific. The drunken, unscrupulous reporter is a bit of a caricature but the actor made him very funny and human.

Unfortunately, I didn't connect as well with the actors who played Leo and Lucille. I remember when you were talking about David Pittu in the role, you said he took your breath away. I just didn't feel the same way about the performance I saw. I had a chance to see David Pittu in LoveMusik, and I would love to have seen him as Leo Frank. I also think I knew too much about the case going in, and that probably robbed the story of some of its power.

Still, "Parade" is a very emotional, thought-provoking work. The musical does a great job of evoking the atmosphere that existed at the time - the sensational newspaper coverage, the uneasiness of a society moving to an industry economy and the increase in child labor in factories, the political demagoguery and the role played by memories of the Civil War.

And the depiction of bigotry certainly struck a nerve with me. The scene in the courtroom when people are calling for Leo Frank's death was truly scary. You realize how easy it was to whip people up into a frenzy of hatred and prejudice. Unfortunately, that's still something we have to guard against today.

At 16 March, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, The only point I would quibble with you on is that in this version, the role of the reporter was realized much better and was actually a bit more sympathetic than he may have been in your version. Randy Schmeling's excellent, nuanced turn no doubt made it so.

At 17 March, 2008, Blogger Vance said...

The Old Red Hills of Home is on constant repeat on the iPod. Especially the new Donmar recording.

I was luckily enough to snag a last minute standing room ticket last summer (which in the Donmar Warehouse, means you are in row 3 of the Mezzanine and still felt like I was in the set about to topple over the actors!!!) and while I went to see it more because I felt I should, I came out LOVING IT. HOLY MOLY it was so good!

I really hope that one gets a West End transfer and though it will probably still have a tough time doing well, I still hope so that more people can discover this gem.


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