Parade is a powerful musical that brings to life the actual events of the trial, imprisonment, and eventual lynching of Jewish American Leo Frank in Georgia in the early 1900’s. The story is set beginning in 1913 in the South where they still honored Confederate Memorial Day – a shockingly brazen celebration of the racism that led to the Civil War.
Featuring a book by Alfred Uhry and thrilling music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, the story demonstrates that it wasn’t just the Blacks that were the subject of discrimination by white supremacists. Jews, too, were seen as not worthy of all the rights of proper Southerners. The musical was co-conceived and directed on Broadway by the legendary Harold Prince.
Now being produced by Theatre Nebula at Palatine’s Cutting Hall through October 8, Parade is a robust musical that rises to the challenge of telling the story of a regrettable part of America’s history. The poignancy is amplified by the fact that our country still has a significant percentage of the population that harbors racist and anti-Semitic feelings.
In the story a young girl (Mary Phagan) is raped and murdered in Atlanta in 1913. The local, corrupt law enforcement rather arbitrarily pick two focuses of their investigation – a Black night watchman by the name of Newt Lee, and Leo Frank – a Jewish factory superintendent. The feeling among the law is that the public has had enough Black defendants for such crimes, it’s time to step up the game with a new threat to Southern ways of life – a Northern Jew.
Leo, as played by Ben Isabel, is not a terribly likable fellow. He is deeply opinionated against the questionable morals and beliefs in Atlanta in the early 1900s. This doesn’t sit well with the Atlanta locals, including his wife Lucille. Leo is often rude and abrasive in his disposition. As such, he makes for a very unsympathetic defendant – especially when prosecutor Hugh Dorsey paints him as a vial villain through the manipulated, dishonest testimony of supposed witnesses.
In the role of Lucille, Teagan Earley is divine. She has an incredible voice and very strong acting chops. The audience fully buys into her love of a man who others might not see as worth saving. She is just one distinguished performer in a production filled with impressive talent.
Isabel’s Leo Frank is a complex character. He must be off putting enough to make him a dislikable defendant but must soften later in the play so that his death is clearly a sad and unwarranted outcome.
Among those contributing to the railroad job against Leo, David Pfenninger is excellent as prosecutor Dorsey. Neill Kelly is very strong as Governor John Slaton, as is Peter Moeller as reporter Britt Craig, and J. Sebastian Fabal as right-wing writer Tom Watson.
Among the supporting players, Korey White is outstanding as Jim Conley, the man who probably did commit the murder, but instead serves as a key “witness” against Leo. Despite the entire case against Leo being based on purely circumstantial evidence and false testimony, his fate has already been decided based on antisemitism.
As a singer, White has a bluesy, Gospel voice that can curl your toes. His singing along is worth attending this fine musical. Beverly Dines also has a voice and range that is awe inspiring.
Indeed, there is not a single bad singer in the Theatre Nebula cast. Dane Strange, Tyler Callahan, and Mark Burrows all offer impressive vocals during their time in the spotlight. Kaia Mavradas is also strong as the victim Mary Phagan.
Stealing the show, though, is young Eddy Finch as Frankie Epps – the teenage boyfriend of the murder victim. Epps goes from a happy go lucky kid flirting with the girl of his dreams, to bitter conspiracy theorist hell bent on making Leo pay for Mary’s murder no matter if he’s guilty or not.
Finch has an incredibly impressive voice that is filled with passion. Finch is also no slouch as an actor or dancer. His performance is stunning – one of the best parts of an overall great production.
Rounding out the cast are Christine Pfenninger, Danielle Jean, Jamie McCalister, Micki Simolenski, Madelyn Bleasdale, Frankie Caputo, and Holly Weis.
I always applaud companies that take on musicals that delve into dark areas. While there will always be a place for feel-good musicals, there is also a need for musicals that move us and educate us, even when those lessons shine a light on parts of history that we shouldn’t be proud of.
Parade was originally produced on Broadway in 1998. It was honored with nine Tony nominations, winning both Best Book and Best Original Score.
For the Theatre Nebular production, Bryan McCaffrey proves an excellent director – pulling stellar performances out of the cast and painting a vivid picture. Musical director Anna Wegener does an amazing job coaxing brilliance out of both the singers on stage and the musicians in the pit.
The orchestra consists of Wegener (keyboards), Theresa Lams (reeds), John Catomer (horns), Ash Fitzwater and Katie Cousins (violins), Katie Brown (viola), Rex Meyer (cello), Marisa Bellie (bass), and Paige O’Rourke and Ella Watylyk (percussion).
The production is not a dance-heavy show, but choreographer Kristine Burdi does an excellent job with creatively moving the actors around the stage. Burdi’s incorporation of set pieces such as chairs into the choreography is ingenious and impressive.
Set design by J. Spencer Greene is simple yet effective. The set provides an unobtrusive backdrop, letting the attention fall on the stunning performances of the cast. Greene also serves as executive producer.
Also on the production staff are Victoria Jablonski (costume design), Ryan Meadow (lighting design), Emma Ferguson (stage manager), Brett Baleski (scenic painter), Emma Ferguson (properties design), Resse Shino (assistant stage manager), Mateo Nunez (lighting operator), Sara Shifflet (photographer), Neill Kelly (dialect coach), Frank Rebeka (house manager), Christ Tumblin and Di French-Tumblin (sound design).
Marketing for the show is provided by Teresa J. Arnold, Jessica Fabal, and Christine Milins. The set crew includes Mateo Nunez, Emma Ferguson, Laura Aki, Fimothy Ferguson, Nick Martinez, and Tyler Chappell.
All performances take place at Cutting Hall, located at 150 E. Wood Street in Palatine, IL. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM.
Theatre Nebula is an award-winning non-equity professional theatre company located in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. For show information and links for purchasing tickets to this highly enjoyable and emotionally moving production of Parade, visit www.TheatreNebula.org.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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