Monday, August 04, 2008

Parade: You want theatre to be uplifting?


(Reflection on a production of the musical PARADE, book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Directed for Wildwood Summer Theatre of Bethesda, Maryland, by Kristina Friedgen.)

PHOTO from Hal Leonard, Music Publisher website

You want theatre to be uplifting? How about a love story, where a young couple married by arrangement learn to love each other deeply? How about a show in which all main characters -- not just the romantic leads -- lose their cynicism, overcome their fears, and stand up for what's right? How about a fast-paced musical in which the songs accelerate the action, gleam with wit, and evoke deep emotion? What if there's humor in every scene? Alfred Uhry wrote the script and Jason Robert Brown wrote both music and lyrics for just such a show, PARADE, originally directed on Broadway by Harold Prince around 2000. But the typical reaction to their masterpiece, even from its original critics, is what I overheard in the lobby of Atlanta's Fox Theatre years ago, from a voice edged with sarcasm: "Well, THAT was uplifting!"

So it was a surprising choice for a youth musical theatre camp in Bethesda, Maryland, but their production made me wonder how anyone could feel anything other than elated by the show. Director Kristina Friedgen, recent graduate of the University of Maryland's theatre program, chose a fresh-faced young man with a soaring baritone voice, Jonathan Loewy, to open the show alone on stage. He's a Confederate recruit off to fight the Civil War to fight the northern invaders who threaten the honor of the "red hills of home," the town of Marietta, Georgia, twenty miles north of Atlanta. A silhouette of those mountains in sunset shines behind him, as he carves his initials in a twisted tree. He marches off confidently to war. It's the unique power of musical theatre to transform this soaring martial anthem to music for a military parade early in the next century on "Confederate Memorial Day."

It's a fateful day in Georgia history with consequences that reach far beyond the lives of the characters in this play. On that day in April, 1913, a young Marietta girl, Mary Phagan (played by Kristina's sister Katie Friedgen -- a sophomore in college playing a spunky thirteen-year-old girl) took the train into Atlanta to collect her dollar and change for a week of labor at the National Pencil Company. She was never seen alive again. Raped and murdered, her body was discovered in the basement of the factory on April 27. Suspicion fell on two suspects. One of them was a black man who worked at the factory. This was at a time when the hanging of black men, with and without judicial proceedings, was such a routine matter that photos of lynchings were sold and sent out as postcards, conveying the unmistakable message, "Georgia knows how to keep blacks in line." So the politicians involved felt that their public wouldn't be satisfied with another routine hanging.

For this reason, the factory's business manager Leo Frank became the scapegoat. He was the one that Mary went to see for her salary. Other managers and workers took the day off for the parade. For the purposes of the prosecution, Frank was easy to paint as an untrustworthy man with hidden perversions, because he was a Jew from that Yankee Sodom, New York City. Frank made prosecution even easier because he was shy and pedantic, perceived as cold and arrogant. Actor Ben Lurye plays the coldness with humor, and convincingly plays Frank's extremes, from near-hysteria to warmth. In Friedgen's choreographed enactment of girls' lying testimony, he also dances and sings as a slimy predator - very convincing, two inches over-the-top and funny.

The rest of the plot, spanning two years, is simple: Prosecutor Hugh Dorsey railroads Frank through the trial to a guilty verdict and capital sentence, buying and bullying witnesses into made-up testimony. But the persistence of Frank's wife Lucille and second thoughts expressed by the judge pump up the conscience of lightweight pretty-boy Governor Slaton. The governor's investigation leads him to commute Frank's sentence to life in prison. Citizens of Atlanta, outraged, mob the governor's mansion and Slaton flees the state, while citizens of Marietta break into the jail and pull Frank out to hang him. When the crowd, motivated to preserve the "honor" of their community by punishing this Yankee, those red hills of home appear again on the backdrop, and he is hanged from that same tree that has been there on stage since the first scene.

The Leo Frank case excited nation-wide attention just before World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. It coincided, then, with anti-immigrant hysteria and the Red Scare. The culture at large was re-thinking the Civil War and interpreting Reconstruction in a way popularized by the silent movie BIRTH OF A NATION, in which heroic Ku Klux Klansmen rescue the honorable South from greedy Yankee businessmen and their barbaric minions, the freedmen. In the immediate aftermath of the Frank case, the Ku Klux Klan was re-born, and the Anti-Defamation League was formed.

Director Friedgen made sure we knew all about the plot before we saw the show. She visited Georgia archives and put together an historical display of artifacts and film for the curious audience to study. Instead of focusing just on what happens next, we were free to pay attention to the growth in the characters. Lucille Frank, played by Sherry Berg, begins as the Jewish socialite, an assimilated southern belle none too happy with her marriage. In her crisis, she defends her husband, faces the crowds, and finds the inner confidence and resources to gather evidence to overturn the conviction. Governor Slaton wants nothing to do with this dirty matter, especially as he sees political enemies using the case to gain popular approval; but he risks everything to re-open the case. Our narrator for the evening is a drunken, cynical newsman Britt Craig, who feeds the public frenzy by printing innuendo and lies of the politicians; but, he is chastened by Lucille's example of strength and integrity, and ends the show trying to make amends.

The climax of the show isn't the hanging, but a sequence of scenes and songs building in hope throughout the second act. Leo and Lucille sing an energetic and optimistic duet, "This is Not Over Yet." The next several minutes show the re-opened investigation and pardon. There's an ominous ensemble number, "Where Will You Stand When the Flood Comes?" staged so that we can see all the parties caught up in a flood of emotions. Waves of words and music overlap to dramatize the public's being whipped up into mob action. Another duet by Leo and Lucille bookends the sequence with a song, "All the Wasted Time," an ecstatic love song. By now, thanks to strong voices and nuanced acting by the young performers Lurye and Berg, we've forgotten that we're watching kids, and we're involved in their relationship, and we're fooled for a moment into forgetting what lies ahead.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did see the show as a guest of Kristina. I saw the show with her mother Gloria, Uncle Ernie, Aunt Mary, cousin Matthew, and great-aunts Millie and Terry. I taught Kristina and her sister Katie at the Walker School in the late 90s, when they played roles in MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, HER YANKEE SECRET (by yours truly), and INTO THE WOODS, Jr. How wonderful to see how young students have pursued their interests and grown into mature artists!