Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - November 11, 2011

A grim, poignant 'Parade'

Palo Alto Players take on a dark period of U.S. history

by Karla Kane

"Parade" is not for the faint of heart. Lynch mobs, rape, murder, child labor, anti-Semitism and racism are among the topics tackled by the musical, currently being performed by Palo Alto Players. The show is based on the case of Leo Frank (which led to the creation of the Anti-Defamation League), and the somber story makes for an unusual musical-theater experience.

It's 1913 in Georgia, and Leo Frank (William Giammona), a Jewish New Yorker unhappily transplanted from Brooklyn to the Deep South, works as the supervisor of a local pencil factory. He has a loving wife — the also-Jewish but native Southern belle Lucille (Alicia Teeter) — but their relationship is tenuous, thanks to his misery at being a cultural fish out of water and her frustration about the coldness with which he treats her.

Though a half a century has passed since the Confederacy lost the Civil War, the locals' sense of indignation and mourning for the South's glory days still loom large, and are celebrated annually on Confederate Memorial Day, with the titular parade as a key part of the festivities. Frank bemoans the holiday as representative of all that's wrong with his adopted homeland, and goes to work instead.

It is during said parade that young Mary Phagan (Nicolette Norgaard), a 13-year-old white girl employed as a low-wage factory worker, collects her paycheck from Frank and is seen alive for the last time. When her assaulted corpse is discovered at the factory the following morning, Frank, with his Yankee ways and hostile attitude, becomes a prime suspect.

Frank is prosecuted with zeal by a district attorney (Cameron Weston) eager to make his political mark. (The D.A. decides that the conviction of a black man, another suspect, would not earn him the necessary prestige, as such convictions are apparently a dime a dozen.)

The trial is a farce, with bribed, corrupt witnesses lying up a storm, and an outraged community seething with rage and pain over the murder, desperate to see vengeance done at any cost. An opportunistic yellow journalist (Chris Janssen) spins the story gleefully while Lucille Frank takes up her husband's plight and eventually convinces the governor to review his case. As Frank realizes how much she's done for him, the relationship blossoms anew, amongst the trying circumstances.

Though things begin to look up for the Franks, anyone familiar with the history of the story knows a grim ending is in store when some community members decide to take justice into their own hands.

Clearly "Parade" is not a feel-good musical, but its story is historically important and compelling. The book was written by Alfred Uhry — who tackled the lighter side of Jewish-Southern relations in the touching comedy "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" — with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.

"Parade" drags at times and would be equally effective, and more streamlined, as a straight play. It would benefit from at least some editing down of a few superfluous musical numbers. On the other hand, the score, which won a 1999 Tony Award, is hauntingly beautiful at times, and creates atmosphere especially in its sparest moments. A sinister bass line here, an ominous drum roll there underscore the tragedy perfectly. There is also a nice mixture of period- and location-appropriate ragtime and blues-tinged songs throughout.

Performances are mostly strong all around, with a plethora of excellent singers in the cast. In addition to the leads, Brian Palac is a captivating standout as the villainous factory janitor Jim Conley, who earned the biggest cheers of the bunch at curtain call.

Many of the cast members play multiple roles with aplomb, and I especially enjoyed the harmony vocals during ensemble numbers, in particular those of three young women portraying Phagan's workmates and friends, singing their incriminating testimony. Unfortunately, at a recent performance the orchestra often drowned out the singers, making the lyrics unintelligible.

The set and scenery are bare bones, consisting often of just a platform and chairs, but the period costumes, by Mary Cravens, are a delight.

You won't leave a performance of "Parade" tapping your toes or wildly cheering (especially after the ambiguous, defiant closing number), but the tragic story and well-done production will stick with you for some time after.

What: The Palo Alto Players present the musical "Parade"

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Through Nov. 20, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $32, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups of 12 or more.

Info: Go to http://paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.

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