‘Parade’ a musical about a forgotten prejudice in America

SHARE ‘Parade’ a musical about a forgotten prejudice in America



When: Through Nov. 16

Where: BoHo Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont

Tickets: $18 – $27

Info: (773) 975-8150; http://www.BoHoTheatre.com

Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission

If ever there were a time to cast your vote for Chicago as “world theater capital for grand-scale musicals performed on intimate stages,” this is it.

Consider the evidence: At the very moment that BoHo Theatre is presenting its eye-opening revival of Jason Robert Brown’s “Parade” on one of Theater Wit’s three stages, Griffin Theatre has debuted its sensational production of Maury Yeston’s newly revised “Titanic” on an immediately adjacent stage. Meanwhile, right next door at Stage 777, Porchlight Music Theatre is wowing audiences with a galvanic revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” And at the Victory Gardens studio, Bailiwick Chicago is running its thrilling version of Michael John LaChiusa’s “The Wild Party.” All of these productions feature exceptionally large casts. Each is packed with talent. And every one of them has been realized in grand style on a storefront budget.

But back to “Parade.” The 1998 musical, with its Tony Award-winning score by Jason Robert Brown, and a book by Alfred Uhry (of “Driving Miss Daisy” fame), is based on the notorious 1913 case of Leo Frank, the Jewish, Brooklyn-bred, college-educated manager of the National Pencil Company factory in Atlanta who was accused and convicted of raping and murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old girl who worked in the factory. His conviction was the result of a kangaroo trial, with coerced testimony from blacks, the only ethnic group more reviled than Jews in the Deep South of the period. And the whole thing was orchestrated against a backdrop of political chicanery and opportunism.

Frank was unquestionably a fish out of water, who had moved to Atlanta four years earlier so that his wife, Lucille — also Jewish, but Atlanta-born, and far more entrenched in Southern society — could remain near her family. A workaholic, determined to be successful, his cerebral nature and overall alienation made him his own worst enemy, and the show deftly keeps him a figure of suspicion until a crucial moment late in the story. There also was tension in his marriage, although Lucille, drawn to his intelligence and stability, valiantly fought for his release from prison despite an initial retreat.

When Phagen’s body is found in the pencil factory’s basement, Frank becomes an immediate suspect. An important political contest is on the horizon, and the heat is on to solve the case before the upcoming elections. And while ordinarily an African American employee might have been targeted, this time the powers that be wanted to nab someone “more important,” so Frank becomes their easy target. When problems with the trial are raised after Frank’s conviction, and his death sentence is commuted to life in prison, he is transferred to another facility where a lynching party quickly takes matters into its own hands, kidnapping and hanging him.

“Parade,” skillfully directed by Linda Fortunato, with expert music direction by Matt Deitchman, captures the complex world of Atlanta in the early 20th century, with its potent residue of post-Civil War resentment and Southern pride, its powerful, ever-entangled elite of politicians, lawyers and judges, its enduring racial and social divides, and its suspicion of all “Yankees.” And Brown’s rich and varied score is notably savvy in the way it evokes the sounds and rhythms of each contingent, with everything from Dixie anthems and the blues to vocalized trial scenes.

Thin and agitated, Jim DeSelm captures the essence of the neurotic, uneasy Leo Frank, with Sarah Bockel as his wife, growing in fervor and confidence as she realizes what she must do to save her husband. Peyton Tinder is the perfect teen girl on the brink of discovery as Mary Phagen, with sassy Cole Doman as Frankie, her determined little suitor, Christa Buck as her grieving mother and Lillie Cummings and Rachel Shapiro as Mary’s spirited teenage co-workers.

Eric Lewis (above) turns in a knockout performance as Jim Conley, the black janitor at the factory who becomes the prosecution’s star witness after being threatened with return to a chain gang. Lorenzo Rush, Jr. is first-rate as Newt, the black night watchman. And Rush (playing Riley) and Angela Alise (as the Franks’ housekeeper), join for a scorching rendition of “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’,” in which they bitterly observe the interest of northerners in the case of a white man.

Nathan Carroll nails the role of the reporter in search of a comeback by way of a sensationalized story, and there is outstanding work by Rus Rainear (as an old soldier), Scott Danielson (as a smarmy prosecutor), Russell Alan Rowe (as dapper Governor Slaton) and Michael Potsic (as a zealous local newspaper editor).

Brown’s fine score — played with exceptional beauty by a band that includes Kevin Reeks, Renee Henley, Anthony Rodriguez, Bryant Millet and Drylan Frank — brings a chapter in American history to life as only an inspired musical can do.

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