If there were ever any doubts that Renegade Theater Company had “arrived,” those would have been swept away and gone with the wind, appropriately, the moment the lights went out at the conclusion of Parade.
In a truly remarkable evening, Renegade opened its 2011 season with the musical made of the true story of the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jew living in the early 20th century blood-lusting South still reeling with defeat from the Civil War and seething with prejudice and ignorance.
Written by Alfred Uhry (author of Driving Miss Daisy and the only individual to ever win an Academy Award, Tony Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize for dramatic writing) with lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years and 30 years Uhry’s junior) Parade has enjoyed a far more enthusiastic success touring in the US professionally and in community theatre, it seems, than it did for its 84 performances on Broadway, debuting at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in 1998. Interestingly (and, disappointingly) this is a show that Sondheim turned down.
Renegade’s production of Parade is directed by Katy Helbacka (The Sparrow) and tells the story of Leo Frank, a factory director living in Georgia, accused of the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan, a teenaged girl working in the factory. The story chronicles the miscarriage of justice and the moral righteousness of the innocent accused.
Parade opens with a rousing and exceptionally well performed prologue, “The Old Red Hills of Home” with Andy Bennett and the show’s company. Bennett’s versatile performances on stage also as reporter Britt Craig and Governor Stanton are solid and his vocal ability is perfectly attuned for this show. Bennett particularly shines in “Real Big News” in the middle of the first act after Leo is indicted and gets ready to be put to trial, handling both vocals and choreography like a seasoned showman. The opening numbers, including “The Dreams of Atlanta” put the show on a decisively positive footing. There are no weak or timid vocalists in this company.
The central characters in the story are Leo Frank and his wife, Lucille, played by Adam Sippola (The Who’s Tommy, The Last Five Years, RENT) and Jenna Kase (The Sparrow, RENT). Sippola is at turns wry and deeply moving in his vocal performances and other moments on stage. As the conscientious and intentional Leo Frank, Sippola gives a believable and sorrowful turn on stage as the wrongly accused, and wrongly placed outsider in his southern milieu. He sets up the relationship with his new home and with his new wife in a tongue-in-cheek “How Can I Call This Home” as the audience begins to understand the relationship between Leo and Lucille. Kase gives a sweet belle interpretation to her character but is able, during the course of the story, to show Lucille’s steely determination and her own growing independence of and loyalty to her husband as she attempts to vindicate their names and get his case opened again by the governor. Kase’s best vocal moments are deeply felt during “You Don’t Know This Man” and in the second act with Sippola during “All The Wasted Time.” Harmonizing with Sippola is the best demonstration of Kase’s vocal talent for this particular production. Stand out choreography, under the direction of Amber Burns and vocals on stage during “The Factory Girls/Come Up To My Office” with Sippola and Andrea Schmidt (Iola), Abby Hegerfeld (Essie) and Jessie Pellowski (Monteen) give polish and flourish to the show. That particular number also gives Sippola the chance to inhabit the darker side of his sexually repressed character, indulging the audience in moments of wondering whether or not Leo Frank is freak enough to have violated these fresh-faced teens.
Mary Phagan (Amber Burns) is the innocent girl murdered and found in the basement of the pencil factory. Burns’ performance, while brief, is a heart-tugging turn on stage at first delighting during “The Picture Show” with Frankie Epps (Steven Douglas). In fact, standing out in the cast is Douglas with powerful vocals and thoughtful emotions on stage, especially during “It Don’t Make Sense” with the rest of the company.
When Leo is seized by the police and put in jail for suspicion in the murdering of Mary Phagan, we are introduced to the oily and bombastic Hugh Dorsey (Evan Kelly) as the prosecutor in the case, in a truly unfunny role. Kelly demonstrates his commitment to the show and provides just enough ugliness in his character’s demeanor and dramatic southern accent to give color and substance to the underhanded good ol’ boys network including Tom Watson (David Greenberg) that turns public opinion against and causes the court to convict Leo. During the trial, Kelly gives a respectable vocal performance during “Twenty Miles from Marietta” that sets up the crooked case.
Without fail, Gabriel Mayfield as the state’s key witness against Leo, Jim Conley, burns up the stage and brings down the house during sneering and devious bits of dialogue and fiery, raw vocals, especially satisfying during “That’s What He Said” while he’s testifying at trial and during “A Rumbin’ and A Rollin’” in the second act. The first number incites the courtroom to scream for Leo Frank’s blood and the second showing the audience just how underhanded and dirty Jim Conley is. Both performances are highlights of the show. Indeed, you really can’t go wrong casting Mayfield in any role that requires him to let loose on stage. More than any other person on stage, Mayfield gives us the dramatic divide between good and evil Parade demands in showing the injustice of what’s being perpetrated in front of our eyes.
Not to be missed is a performance by Anne Stephen as Mary Phagan’s mother, in an emotional and evocative, yet appropriately restrained number “My Child Will Forgive Me.” Another standout vocalist is Tonya Porter as Minnie McKnight, the Franks’ maid.
The first act runs at just over an hour and is the strongest part of the show. The script hurries things along in the second act, as if time must be condensed to get the fact-finding parts of the story out of the way. There’s a big dance number in the second act during which time Bennett, as the governor, dances his way through the ladies in town. The choreography here is a bit chaotic for the eyes and one wishes that some actors would just flat out let loose with the moves during “Pretty Music.”
A couple of the show’s numbers could have been left out and tightened up the running time of the show during the second act, but that’s more a criticism of the script than it is of any of the actors on stage. Choreography by Burns and direction by Katy Helbacka make excellent use of the time and space in the black box. There aren’t any lulls in the action.
The woeful conclusion to the life of Leo Frank is the lynching that occurs at the end of the show. With dramatic use of lighting and music conducted by Patrick Colvin, the audience is given moments of almost unbelievable sorrow they are hopeless to prevent as the action of the story has taken us from lows to the highs of Leo’s commutation of sentence to life in prison while the case is investigated again. Sippola is a virtuoso of emotional bending, especially intoning the Hebrew prayer, Sh’ma, before his death.
Technically, the lighting design by Noah Craft and the music direction by Anne Tower provide the essential elements the musical needs for the gravity of its subject matter. Mayfield bathed in almost amber light during the fiery “A Rumblin’ and A Rollin’” and Sippola enveloped in ghostly blues and greens during the final moments of his life drive the emotions and action of those scenes in ways that cannot be underestimated or unsung. Set design by Preston Grant makes excellent use of the Teatro Space (which can be visually challenging) in moving the audience’s eyes to locations and time with appropriate mood, especially in the construction of Leo’s cell and in the lynching scene at the show’s end. Costumes by Sasha Howell are period appropriate and well-fit for the actors.
If Parade is any indication of the quality of show that is to be expected from Renegade Theater Company for the 2011 season, the Zenith City is in for quite the ride. The courage and determination to do shows like Parade must be encouraged by the theatre community. When the black box venues are putting up provocative and challenging shows like this one, it is apparent that these venues are ascending in importance and relevance over some of the more traditional and fluffier options that have, for a long time, been the only options the city’s theatre-going public has had the opportunity to consider.
Don’t miss this show.
PARADE. Written by Alfred Uhry. Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Katy Helbacka for Renegade Theater Company at Teatro Zuccone, 222 East Superior Street, Duluth. With Andy Bennett, Jenna Kase, Adam Sippola, Amber Burns, Steven Douglas, Cory Anderson, Tonya Porter, Kyle McMillan, Gabriel Mayfield, Anne Stephen, Lacy Habdas, Mike Pederson, Evan Kelly, David Greenberg, Scott Hebert, Andrea Schmidt, Jessie Pellowski, Abbey Hegerfeld, Dani Stock, and Susie Wilfahrt. The show runs Thursdays through Saturdays through February 19. Curtain time: 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 and worth every damned penny.
This review was based on the February 3, opening night performance. Written by Dennis Kempton.