May 6, 2011

Amidst the craziness of pre-frosh weekend and Yardfest, Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s “Parade” was performed in the New College Theater.  Known for its powerful, beautiful music and its sad, painfully true story, “Parade” is a musical that tugs at the heartstrings while remaining consistently entertaining throughout. This production, directed by Josh McTaggart ’13 and musically directed by Sam Schoenberg ’13, accomplished some of its aims but was altogether unremarkable.

The setting is a snapshot of post-civil war Georgia, and the story follows Leo Frank (Elliott Rosenbaum ’12), a Jewish factory owner who is wrongfully accused of the murder of Mary Phagan (Mary Gabrielle Prezioso ’13), a young factory worker. While many subplots involving politicians, other suspects, and townspeople work together to create a colorful and diverse picture, the tale rests on the volatile but never-failing relationship between Leo and his wife Lucille (Amelia Ross ’14).

The strengths of the production lie in the musical direction and certain individual performances. The pit was enjoyable and nearly flawless. In a world where orchestras are often criticized for overpowering singers, Schoenberg should be commended for keeping the volume at a reasonable level and paying attention to his actors every step of the way.

Ross’s performance was the most memorable.  Her simultaneous command of her singing voice and her character was enticing and inspiring, infusing the character with a sense of compassion in an often alienating show. She seemed to effortlessly balance the task of portraying a real person with an objective while remaining a musical-theater version of that character. Also notable was Jonathan Stevens ’14 as Tom Watson – the power and rich tone of his voice combined with a consistent sternness made for a believable and chilling reverend. As the desperate, conniving reporter, Adam Conner ’14 injected an energy into the show that was very welcome in an otherwise non-comedic story.  Phil Gillen ’13 also stood out in the courtroom scene as the ruthless conductor of a brutal, unjust trial.

While his singing voice was strong and suited for the role, Rosenbaum’s portrayal of Leo Frank did not match the polarizing nature of his character in the story. His vocal affectation was consistently distracting, and there seemed to be very little arch to his performance. Because of his consistently pitiful demeanor, a song like “It’s Hard To Speak My Heart,” which is designed to be touching and moving, lost a lot of its emotional poignancy. Similarly, “Come Up To My Office,” a number that calls for a transformation of Leo into a devilish, disgusting caricature, failed to strike a scary tone. At the same time, Rosenbaum was not fazed by Leo’s difficult range, and his singing is to be praised.

Another slight drawback of the show was that Christopher Simmons ’11 was asked to play multiple black male roles in the show. His timid performance as Newt Lee was both strong and touching, but when asked to portray the unabashed, alpha-male Jim Conley, he did not fill these shoes as gracefully. While actor availability makes this issue difficult to solve, this instance of double-casting made the show hard to follow.

On the whole, the show seemed to unfold rather slowly. Perhaps the multitude of stories and characters to develop made the pacing difficult to maintain, but some things dragged, especially in the second act. A lack of movement in parts of the show didn’t help. The little dancing that there was, while fitting, was not particularly exciting. Other drawbacks can be traced back to problems with the NCT as a space. At times, even when the pit was not loud, it was difficult to hear the actors’ words (this was especially true when actors ventured to the second story of the monumental set, designed by Madie Hays ‘13).  The vertical shape of the audience was also an obstacle for some. Anise Molina ’14, for instance, who played Frankie Epps, had a very strong singing voice, but he undercut his dedicated performance by not looking up and addressing the whole audience.

The show could have benefited from a larger chorus. After all, this is a show about community. It asks the question, how can a group of people rise up to collectively murder an innocent man? Defense of a group identity is at the core of Parade, especially given the post-Civil-War context in which Brown and Uhry frame the musical. Leo became a symbol of the north’s exploitation of traditional southern values. A larger, more powerful community on stage could have enhanced that message and moved the audience to understand that struggle and the shocking psychology behind the horrific events of the play.

At the same time, for a cast of 18 people, the ensemble was exceptional. This was especially evident in the number “Where Will You Stand When The Flood Comes?” – a piercing, angry cry than began with individual characters questioning the town and ended with the entire group questioning the audience.  Additionally, the ending of the play was powerful, and this part of the story was told clearly. When the flashback of little Mary Phagan reentering Frank’s office reveals she only uttered a sweet “Happy Memorial Day,” one large, sad exhale could be felt among the crowd.

While there were some memorable highlights, this was not the most memorable or entertaining version of the unforgettable story of Leo and Mary, as it struggled to tell a troubling and challenging story that would be historically accurate, emotionally engaging, and dramatically sound all at the same time. A production like this at Harvard is no doubt a monumental undertaking by all involved, and the fact that it was produced at the level it was is a testament to the undying commitment of theater people at this school.

The Harvard Art Review Theatre Board


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