by J.S. Alleva
As I write this, a tall bush outside my window sways in the breeze. Its leaves are pale green, almost white. They look like flower petals until a gust of wind reveals a wave of deep green as they turn. They are but leaves, their colors revealed only by the force of the wind. This is a fitting analogy for Footlighters’ brilliant production of PARADE, where audiences are privileged (and challenged) to witness how human ‘perception’ can change when the wind blows…or when a crime occurs…and how our filters and personal agendas cloud those perceptions, especially when the stakes are high. Footlighters’ thoughtful, and richly musical, portrayal of real events shows us how pale and how dark we human ‘leaves’ can be when the wind blows harshly against us.
Written by Alfred Uhry, with an astounding musical score by Jason Robert Brown, Footlighters’ production of PARADE runs through June 16th. It is not a ‘toe-tapping musical,’ but a powerful, moving, and inspiring performance. It delves deeply into the subtle (and not so subtle) influences of racism, anti-Semitism, mob mentality and individual greed. The over-arching theme, however, is unconditional love.
The show takes place in 1913, in Atlanta, Georgia, where socio-political, racial and religious tensions are in the air like the scent of magnolias. The superintendent at a local factory, Leo Frank is a tightly-wound Brooklyn-born Jewish man, married to a well-kept Georgian-born Jewish woman, and admittedly at odds with his surroundings. Despite his supportive wife, Leo finds the juxtaposition of North & South to be so unnerving that he throws himself into his work, alienating his young wife.
When a 13-yr old worker, Mary Phagan, is found murdered at the factory, Leo becomes the prime suspect, to his shock and disbelief. As testimonies are gathered, a string of deceptions and half-truths come forward, all leading to Leo’s indictment. Leo’s wife, Lucille, at first horrified at the limelight her husband’s trial brings, develops an inner core of strength and love, bringing hope to her jailed husband. A cluster of native Georgians, however, take matters into their own hands, and things take an unexpected (or perhaps not-so-surprising) turn. Brilliantly written, this shows keeps the audience guessing throughout, and the identity of the murderer becomes anyone’s guess from start to finish. The truths of this very real and historic trial remain a mystery even today.
In an ensemble cast this impressive and professional, standout performances are harder to discern, but Kristina Psitos, as the devoted and determined Lucille Frank, gives a gut-wrenching performance with a rich, Georgian lilt and show-stopping vocals. Anthony “Toney” Harris gives a blood-chilling performance as Jim Conley, sharing seedy testimony in court, and an almost maniacal frankness in his chain gang encounter with the Governor. Paul Recupero as Britt Craig, the sensationalist reporter who makes things harder for the accused, gives a pull-no-punches, physically impressive, ‘drunken’ display in “Big News!” These are just three among an entire cast of powerfully-drawn characters.
The show begins with a simple snare drum and the soulful voice of Young Soldier Robert Lewis, who later portrays Frankie Epps with ultimately-vengeful passion.
Bill Gilbertson follows as the Old Soldier who fills the room with his smooth, resonant voice and still presence. He later portrays an eerily straight-faced Judge Roan.
The character of Leo Frank is rendered with great care by Jason Kramer. His portrayal of the ill-fated workaholic who belittles his wife is painfully realistic, and heartbreaking when he realizes too late the gift he’s been given. The character (and its portrayal) is multi-faceted and complex, which could be why the Leo Frank mystery has persisted for so long.
The cool-voiced and often creepy lawyer Hugh Dorsey is played by Trevor Sheehan, with slick Detective Starnes played by Kevin Forbes, who doubles later as Luther Rosser.
Minnie, the Franks’ housekeeper, is well played by Kim Simmons/Teresa Peebles. Governor and Mrs. Slaton are played with bright charm by Chaz Meyers and Jenny Torgerson. Mary Phagan is played with impish innocence by Bailey Cavallaro/Sophie Gourmand, and the three factory girls are portrayed with unbridled emotion and outright courage by Ilene Mita (Iola), Liz Cascarelli/Erin Heisey (Monteen) and Cate Hashemi (Essie).
The characters of Newt Lee and Riley are played powerfully by Ameer Dunn. Mrs. Phagan is played with deep motherly distress by Alexander Rush/Lauren Garvey. And Paul Recupero appears again as the sinister Tom Watson.
This amazing ensemble cast is rounded out by Emily Fishman, Michael Kamanda, Chris Moran, Regina Bell, and Aaliyah Jefferson. With rich and powerful vocals, the entire cast lifts this performance to a very high standard.
Melody Dougherty serves not only as Director of this outstanding production, but as Set Designer, and Lighting & Sound Designer/Operator (along with Cindy Mack, Lee Longenberg and Bill Duffy). As each of these tasks is managed expertly, it is hard to imagine one person doing them all. Dougherty tells us that directing PARADE has been a dream of hers from the moment she first saw it, and the depth of her passion shows.
Dougherty’s thought-provoking set design begins in the theater parking lot, with a large billboard plastered with aged and weathered posters showing key players in the story, slung with paint splashes and smudges, suggesting old kiosks where the vitriol of societal judgements often play out.
Inside, the black box stage is similarly-framed, with a variety of (what appear to be) actual news clippings with headlines from Leo Frank’s real-life trial, a chilling reminder of the show’s all-too-real subject matter.
The stage floor itself is empty, allowing full view of the backstage which is fitted with a tall wooden platform from which two staircases descend. The show’s band is housed under the platform, and the stairs serve as courtroom seating and political bandstand, complete with flag décor. The back wall is a giant Confederate flag rustically painted on old wood, and slung with red, white, and blue paint slashes, mimicking the other billboards, and setting the tone of the ‘Old South.’
On the proscenium above the stage are two framed video screens, projecting images throughout the show, providing depth to the story, including an occasional ‘rear view’ of the main action, cleverly emphasizing the theme of multiple viewpoints. Leo’s two-sided jail cell is also significant, and its omission from cell scenes later provides more to ponder about personal freedoms and how they play out in different regions and levels of society.
The creative use of lighting brings focus to the key moments, and sets a variety of moods, including an effective and surreal multi-layered effect, where palely-lit ‘slow-mo’ crowd scenes contrast with brightly-lit front or rear action.
Musical Direction by Richard Lewis is brilliant, supported by a rich and robust performance by the Band (Rich Lewis, Scott Blanke, Linda Alle-Murphy, Chuck Zurek, Brian Moore, Mark Urmson, and Michael Stadnicki). The beautifully-composed score captures the diverse sounds of patriotic Georgia, human deceit, romantic love, and bloodlust, allowing the vocals to shine in resonant solos, lush harmonic duets, and rousing chords in the crowd scenes. Beyond a few spotty places where the mics (taped to the singer’s faces) kick out, the sound is gorgeous and well-balanced throughout.
Choreography by Chloe Sierka works in tandem with the stage blocking for an impressively-smooth flow of action, no small feat with a large cast. Again, the slow-motion crowd scenes are extremely effective and reminiscent of Broadway style shows. The party scene choreography is well-sculpted, and the postures and facial expressions of the young female dancers speak volumes for the storyline, from the creepily-imagined scene with Leo and the factory girls, to the same girls’ robotic testimonial reprise later in the show, each evoking another aspect of our flawed humanity.
The period-appropriate Costuming, including hair and makeup, is crafted expertly by Mary Reynolds showing the many sides of Georgian life, from high society fashion, to the mildly rumpled townsfolk, to the sweaty grit of the chain gangs.
With Technical Direction by Lee Longenberger, the show operates seamlessly, along with Stage Management by Cindy Mack whose design of swift and flawless scene changes is almost choreographic. The show is Produced by Danielle Lachall, assisted by Miriam Heck.
As Director Dougherty states in her program notes, this show is about “real people and a real crime, and a dark part of America’s history.” It is not a comedy by any stretch, nor a traditional romantic musical. Footlighters’ PARADE is a powerful vehicle for awareness and open dialogue about uncomfortable topics, and most of all, about the undeniable strength of human love and perseverance.
Remaining show dates are:
June 8 @ 8pm
June 9 @ 2pm, 8pm
June 10 @ 2pm
June 15 @ 8pm
June 16 @ 2pm, 8pm
The play is performed in two Acts, with a 15-minute intermission, during which raffle tickets are sold for a 50/50 drawing and a Silent Auction for a variety of gift baskets. Winning tickets for the Silent Auction will be drawn at the end of the run.
For more info on this run of PARADE, contact:
58 Main Avenue
Berwyn, PA 19312