Any grade school history book will tell you that the sociopolitical climate in the United States in the early twentieth century was rife with tension. Communities continually struggled to cope with the cultural and economic effects of the Civil War. In the South especially, racism was no less tampered by the Reconstruction era. Likewise resentment toward the North prevailed and substandard living and working conditions plagued citizens of all ethnicities. The Tony Award winning musical Parade, ambitiously mounted by the Kensington Arts Theatre, recounts the gripping true life story of one such citizen.
…an updated, worthwhile and refreshing take on a moving period drama.
The premise–it is 1913. Leo Frank is a Yankee, a Jew, and a Brooklyn native working as a superintendent at a pencil factory in Atlanta, Georgia. When one of his factory workers is found dead in the company warehouse, Frank is soon deemed the number one suspect. However, it is quickly apparent that something/someone much bigger than Leo Frank is on trial in a southern town running rampant with vitriol toward the American north.
Director Craig Pettinati begins Parade with a foreboding visual display. Designed by Matt Karner, the stage is a fitting wash of red, white and blue. Upstage a worn, billboard sized flag hangs imposingly while an American flag and a confederate flag hang to the right and left aboard large ivory columns. As is the signature at KAT, the actors perform from above and below in a choreography of fluid exits and entrances devised by Rachel Cervarich, Emily Zickler, Elizabeth Gillespie, and Craig Pettinati. Equally fluid is the lighting design by Ben Levine. Apropos spotlight guides us through the cast of over one dozen actors while intense flushes of scarlet color heighten the tension and create stark, sharp silhouettes. So too does sound designer Kevin Garrett further authenticate this period drama with familiar war time horn blasts and drum rolls. Finally, costume designers Eleanor Dicks and Jamie Breckenridge skillfully capture the look of the early 1900’s. Lots of men in pageboy caps and suspenders and women in high collars and long frocks nicely reflect the era.
In such a large ensemble cast, there are many standouts. For example, as both Old Soldier and Dorsey, Michael Nansel’s booming baritone vocals immediately command the audience’s attention. His rendition of “Somethin’ Ain’t Right” is ominous, haunting and extraordinary, setting the tone of this taut drama. Conversely, Harrison Smith as the young Frankie Epps and Catherine Callahan as the even younger Mary Phagan lend a light, spirited quality to their vocal performances. They are especially playful and charming in “The Picture Show,” an upbeat ode to young love. However, Smith shows great range as his character later delves into darker territory. In “Frankie’s Testimony” he is especially tense, passionate, and committed to the emotional role of an angst-ridden southerner who demands justice.
Also memorable is the colorful and animated Ian Coleman. As Newt Lee, an African-American caught in the crossfire of Leo Frank’s salacious murder trial, Coleman is energetic and committed. In “I Am Trying to Remember” he is smooth, bluesy and poetic as if performing at an intimate jazz lounge. However, his duet with Eben Logan in “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’” is a better showcase of his emotional range and depth. Together he and Logan adeptly divulge the Black perspective of the turn of events. Logan as domestic workers Minnie and Angela is perfection. As in other KAT productions (i.e. Ragtime), her vocals are imaginative and flawless.
As Leo Frank’s dutiful southern wife, Lucille, Emily Zickler is a charming and sentimental presence. Her delivery of “You Don’t Know This Man,” though quiet and almost delicate, is one of the most memorable songs of the first act. Also memorable is Zickler’s sure-footed solo in “Do It Alone” in act two. Here the actress showcases her obvious range, belting out the valiant number with seemingly effortless agility. And together, Zickler and leading man Bobby Libby have clear chemistry as fraught husband and wife. Their duets are moving, particularly “All the Wasted Time,” in which the couple tune out the chaos for a moment to enjoy a makeshift picnic together. As show star Leo Frank, Bobby Libby transitions believably from naïve workaholic to courageous martyr. In fact, the actor delivers two surprising performances that flaunt his diversity. In “Come Up To My Office” Libby is abruptly swanky and slick after portraying an otherwise meek and reserved character. Likewise, in “This Is Not Over Yet,” Libby offers an emotional and resilient vocal showcase. I was admittedly not sold on Libby as Frank at the play’s beginning, but by the dramatic denouement I was made a believer and a fan.
Together director Craig Pettinati and music director David Rohde create a mostly cohesive and thoroughly enjoyable work. While a few perfunctory expository scenes seem to fall a little flat, the play is a unique, high energy, and exciting production. The diversity of vocal talents gives the play a renewed and modern quality as well. The story of Parade is a lesser told aspect of post-civil war history and I thoroughly enjoyed both its entertainment and educational value. KAT offers an updated, worthwhile and refreshing take on a moving period drama.
Running Time: 2 Hours 30 Min – 15 Min Intermission
Parade plays at Kensington Arts Theatre, 3710 Mitchell Street, Kensington, MD 20895, through November 16. For tickets, click here.