Friday, 21 April 2017

Parade a timely parade of music & bigotry
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

The Fighting Chance cast belts out "The Old Red Hills of Home". 
Red dirt, red necks, red blood. It's all there.
From the footlights : Jason Robert Brown won both the 1999 Tony and Drama Desk awards for Best Musical Score with his show Parade that had been a 1/2 dozen years in creation. The play's "book" -- storyline & non-sung dialogue -- was by Alfred Uhry (best known for Driving Miss Daisy). He snatched the selfsame Tony & Drama Desk awards for Parade that year, too.

There has been, alas, a wee disconnect between the play's award-winning essence and the warmth of critics' enthusiasm for the show in toto. And that is because of its historical subject matter : a contrived conviction for the alleged murderer of a teenage factory worker in Atlanta followed by rednecks lynching the Jewish suspect in 1915. Got to admit this isn't exactly the arc of tragic romance that a Romeo & Juliet or Titanic conjures up.

And meanwhile we live in an age with the rise of alt-right nativist / populist trends world-wide. Thus racism and anti-Semitism are crescendoing anew, orchestrated often by angry white men and women. With these challenges up close and personal, Fighting Chance Productions Artistic Director Ryan Mooney decided to live up to his theatre company's name and give Parade a fighting chance to capture Vancouver audiences. 

Happy to report that FCP's production is a venturesome & vigorous & slightly nervy night of musical theatre that is ambitious fare to digest, no question !

Quicky plot re-cap : As noted, the events dramatised here are matters of fact and historical record with the odd factoid and some post-truth nuances added for good measure. A Jewish chap from Brooklyn is cajoled by an uncle to oversee his Atlanta pencil factory. 13-year-old Mary Phagan, a worker there @ 10 cents per hour pay, is found murdered in the factory basement on April 26, Confederate Memorial Day.

The factory janitor, a black man named Jim Conley, turns state's evidence and helps convict Frank, as do some of Mary's girl co-workers. Frank's wife Lucille pleads with Georgia's governor to commute Leo's death sentence. When the governor does so, an angry mob breaks into the detention farm where he's being held, drags Frank out and kills him in the town of Marieta. A big tree at the corner of Roswell St. and Frey's Gin Road is used to do the deed. (A bit of  delicious accidental symbolism here, that corner a century later is a couple short blocks east of the local Kentucky Fried Chicken stand.)

Sean Anthony and Jagen Johnson in one of the show's myriad tense interrogation scenes.
How it's all put together : Act 1 commences with a rousing Rebel ballad extolling memories of "The Old Red Hills of Home". I found the song a guilty pleasure, not unlike the thrill I still get hearing Robbie Robertson's The Band do "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down". A guilty pleasure because all things Dixie and what they represent are, were and always will be anathema to me (including that romantic con-job of history Gone With The Wind.)

From "Old Red Hills" the show proceeds through the arrest, interrogation, trial and conviction phase facing the hapless Leo. Act 2 turns our attention away from the entire gaggle of co-conspirators and focuses instead on Leo's wife Lucille who tries, successfully, to champion her husband's case with Governor Jack Slaton. 

Before the climactic lynching, Leo and Lucille have a picnic on his jail cell floor singing a charming duet "All The Wasted Time" -- how only by living through these tragic events have they learned that they actually love one another. After the lynching, the locals and one or two rag-tag Dixie veterans, now in their 80's, rock-&-sway proudly if brokenly on Peachtree Street to celebrate yet another Confederate Soldiers Memorial parade. 

Do these objectionable relics who champion racism and overt anti-Semitism permit the audience -- regardless -- to get a buzz off Mr. Brown's often catchy tunes?  That, indeed, is the question critics for 20 years have been divided on.

What the show brings to the stage :  In a January, 2014 piece in The New Yorker, critic Richard Brody observed that the genre of classical musicals is built "on the tension between artifice and authenticity". In Parade, a kind of dramatic decoupling occurs because Act 1 is most of the show's "authenticity", focusing as it does on the gross miscarriage of justice that history confirms happened here. Act 2 is the show's "artifice", where the love story between Leo (Riley Sandbeck) and Lucille (Advah Soudak) blooms, flowers and then is plucked dead a nanosecond later.

Still, if the audience indulges itself what Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 called "a willing suspension of disbelief" to this head-on collision between authenticity and artifice, there is considerable theatric enjoyment to be had in FCP's production of Parade.

Will Tippery and Kaila Kask have a spot of fun before all the Parade pathos begins in earnest.
What the production team has to say :  In the words of FCP Artistic Director Ryan Mooney, "Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry have crafted an incredible piece of musical theatre that may not have you tapping your toes, but will certainly have you shaking your heads...Parade plays in my favourite place -- the grey area of life, that blurry section between black and white where choices aren't as simple as good & evil. I hope that you too will look for that grey area in your life. It's a much more interesting place to live."

For her part music Director Clare Wyatt notes that Jason Robert Brown wrote "The Old Red Hills of Home" and presented it to Alfred Uhry for consideration. "Upon hearing it, Uhry was moved to tears. An Atlantan himself, he recognized the struggle of the southern people, and was touched by the fact that the song, written by a Jewish man who had never seen Georgia in his life, so graciously captured their passion and patriotism [sic]."

Production values that shine : It is Director Ryan Mooney's grasp of the fact that the cognitive and artistic dissonance at the heart of Parade cannot be sidestepped or minimized. Magnetic music by Jason Robert Brown that is part gospel, part anthem, part spiritual, part pop-rock cannot upstage the horrific historic events being portrayed. Nor vice-versa. 

This is not a night of Dr. Feelgood, or even the sweet-sour that a West Side Story brings into play. The character of Leo Frank does not particularly endear. He is reserved, belittling of the Georgia rubes he works with and is judged by, longs for his people back in Brooklyn whom he considers of superior stock to the hoi polloi around him. His relations with Lucille are distant and ambiguous, at least until Act 2. 

But as events S. of 49 demonstrate so clearly today, crowd incitement ("Lock her up!"), fake news and biased coverage (CNN, MSNBC, Fox), visceral self-righteous bombast (the Oval Office occupant, his spokesman Spicer, the bellicose Berkeley campus crowds) are now once again the troubling and tumescent cultural trend.

What Mr. Mooney has done is capture the flavour of all this admirably especially at the end of Act 1 and again to kick off Act 2 when Adrianna Ravalli's choreography of all the perjuring bigots who found their convenient scapegoat in Mr. Frank is danced out with sardonic flare.

Oops! One absolute clanger : I am a dual citizen : 10th generation American whose forefather was the original settler of Boston, MA. I am also an emigre here who when I travel do so on a Canadian passport. Trust me, FCP, there is Absolutely no way! that the parade-watchers on any April 26th Confederate Memorial Day in Atlanta, Georgia would be waving paper Stars-&-Stripes flags. Are you kidding? Maybe the odd one in evidence. By someone from "away". But it would be the Dixie Flag / Southern cross that would be pre-eminent. This wee glitch needs fixing up right smartly! 

Acting pin-spots : A few characters stand out particularly. Advah Soudack as Lucille revealed quiet power in action and robust power in song, a voice compelling to hear even if her Southern accent was inconsistent. (She was alone in that endeavour. My rule as director : all fake accents, or none.)

JP McLean as the scoop-driven journalist Britt Craig driven by the Extra! Extra! read-all-about-it! notoriety he gets is wonderfully egregious.

Mary Phagan's boyfriend Frankie Epps played by Will Tippery was one of the choicest and most powerful voices of the night. Sean Anthony's prosecutor and future governor Hugh Dorsey was all Atticus Finch-in-reverse, even less likeable than O.J.Simpson's dream-team defence. 

As Leo Frank, Riley Sandbeck brought his own idiosyncratic gosh-why-me Woody Allen-esque spin to the role, but had just the right passion and pathos when he needed it too.

Of all the cast, meanwhile, perhaps my favourite on the night was Ricardo Cunha Pequenino. The program claims this is "his first public musical performance since performing Grease The Musical in high school." Pshaw! say I. Great voice, delightful natural stage moves & swagger, shades of one of my favourites, a potential Leon Bibb in-the-making if he works humbly-hard at his craft. 

Who gonna like : Clearly Fighting Chance Productions did not anticipate the election of such a self-satirizing Apprentice President when they chose their current season scripts a year back. What luck for them! The themes and leitmotifs presented by Parade are 100% timely fare in these scatterbrained moments of time playing out day-after-day around the globe.

The dramatic headache the musical presents is minimized by FCP's delivery of a production that plays on myriad levels of foreshadowing and irony. Not least of which its production at the Jewish Community Centre's Norman Rothstein Theatre. 

While structurally and cognitively a bit of a challenge, Parade is clearly a script-for-the-times that is capably and admirably executed here by a swack of upcoming Vancouver performers whose names will no doubt be familiar to us all in short order. Brava! Bravo! all. A night that will stick with me for some time.

Particulars : Presented by Fighting Chance Productions.  At the Norman Rothstein Theatre, Jewish Community Centre, 41st Avenue @ Oak Street. From April 14 - April 29, 2017.  Run-time two hours, 30 minutes including one intermission.  Tickets via

Production crew :  Music & Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.  Book by Alfred Uhry.  Co-conceived & Directed on Broadway [1998] by Harold Prince.  Director Ryan Mooney.  Music Director Clare Wyatt.  Choreographer Adriana Ravalli.  Stage Manager & Prop Master Jessica Hildebrand.  Assistant Director Henry Beasley.  Costume Designer Breeze Dampsy.  Lighting Designer Randy Charlston.  Set Designer Tim Driscoll.  Sound Designer Peter Young.  Assistant Stage Managers Emma Hoogeveen, Amber Scott, Max Rejouis.  Second Sound Ziggy Schutz.  Dance Captains Colton Fyfe, Lucinda Sim.

The Band :  Music Director Clare Wyatt.  Drums Sam MacKinnon.  Violin Katie Stewart. Bass Sydney Tough.

Performers :  Riley Sandbeck (Leo Frank).  Advah Soudak (Lucille Frank)  William Tippery (Frankie Epps). JP McLean (Britt Craig).  Sean Anthony (Hugh Dorsey).  Kayla Kask (Mary Phagan).  Tristin Wayte (Mrs. Phagan).  Raymond Hatton (Luther Rosser).  Ricardo Cunha Pequino (Jim Conley / Riley).  Jagen Johnson (Newt Lee).  Steve Mulligan (Tom Watson).  Peter Slade (Judge Roan / Mr. Peavy / Old Confederate Soldier).  Steve Oben (Governor Slaton).  Alina Quarin (Iola Stover).  Tiana Swan (Minola McKnight / Angela).  Christine Reinfort (Sally Slaton).  Colton Fyfe (Young Confederate Soldier / Detective JN Starnes / Ensemble).  Kaden Chad (Officer Ivey / Ensemble).  Karliana Dewolff, Debbie Kagy, Lucinda Sim, Keri Smith (Female Ensemble).


1 comment:

  1. The review says it all! Great show. Thank you Fighting Chance Productions!