Set in and near Atlanta, 50 years after the end of the civil war, the story opens on a regional "memorial day" parade and celebration, held to honor the confederate soldiers and glorify the south of the prewar era.
At that time in the United States, and particularly in the south, segregation, Jim Crow laws, a lack of public education and sub-standard wages disenfranchised both African Americans and poor whites. But there were other groups almost equally distrusted and disliked by fervent confederates, including northeners and non-Christians, most notably those of the Jewish faith.
Though much of this history is known, the perspective of the out-of-place and disenfranchised is rarely shown in such an immediate and personal way as in "Parade." Leo Frank, deftly portrayed by Pete Winfrey showing restraint and decorum befitting his character, is both Jewish and a transplanted northerner who manages a factory owned by one of his wife's relatives.Mary Phagan, played by Beth Wickenhauser with a bubbly, flirty personality that draws your eye, is the young factory worker later found murdered in the basement of the factory. Their paths cross fatefully when Mary stops by the factory to pick up her pay from Leo before heading to the parade and festivities. Leo is the last one to see and talk with Mary before the events that led to her death.
The majority of the musical focuses on the incarceration, evidence gathering and trial phases of this true story. An overzealous prosecutor, eager to make a name for himself and solidify a run for higher office, pressures, coaches and bribes witnesses to build his case.
Leo's stoicism nearly costs him any chance of presenting a defense. He finally relents and allows his wife Lucille, played with an effervescent touch and steely determination by Jennifer Theby-Quinn, into his confidence. Her resolve endears both Leo and the audience to her, and one of the loveliest moments in the play is a quiet picnic Leo and Lucille share.
Sadly, the love and passion they each realize and finally acknowledge is all too brief as the end of visiting hour approaches and the prison guard returns to escort Lucille to the gate. Winfrey and Theby-Quinn have fabulous chemistry, although it isn't visible during the show's opening scenes, a credit to the actors and director Christina Rios. The relationship is allowed to blossom before the audience's eyes, which is a real treat to watch.
Memorable performances were also turned in by Wickenhauser; Zach Wachter, particularly in his role as Phagan's potential suitor Frankie Epps, a turn of the century "player;" Caitlin Mickey, Maggie Murphy and Macia Noorman as Mary's mischievous, easily swayed coworkers; Marshall Jennings as the leering, self-serving Jim Conley; Alexis Coleman as the conflicted maid Minnie McKnight; Kay Love as the soulful and thoughtful Mrs. Phagan; and Shawn Bowers as the justifiably nervous and frightened Newt Lee. Bowers aches and strains during the interrogation scene and it is impossible to take your eyes off him.
For me, there were many moments in "Parade" that worked well, driving the story's narrative, adding brief comedic respite from the plot and rvealing character depth. Nonetheless, and primarily for its artistic merit and affecting story, I found I wanted to like this show more than I found I honestly could.
Winfrey and, in particular, Theby-Quinn, both have strong, melodic voices, their duets were among the most successful of the night. Other songs of note included "Blue: Feel the Rain" featuring Jennings and "The Factory Girls/Come Up to My Office," with Winfrey, Mickey, Murphy and Noorman.
Unfortunately, however, there wasn't that one big, satisfying musical moment to bring everything together or give the show a resounding hook. Many of the songs had the dual purpose of providing a melody and delivering the story, and there were times when this just didn't work well.
I don't know if the issue was one of song construction or vocal limitations, but I felt overwhelmed by the amount of talk singing, and none of the big numbers seemed to hit the big notes for me. There was also a distinct lack of variety in the pacing and timbre of the show.
Students of the period and history buffs, as well as those interested in how our views of race, ethnicity and religion were shaped and have evolved, will appreciate the depth and thoughtfulness of this musical. And, it is quite emotionally powerful from a number of perspectives.
If you can handle the adult situations, as well as the not-so-politically correct language of the period, and enjoy a musical that will make you think more than hum as you leave the theater, "Parade" should catch and hold your interest.
R-S Theatrics production of "Parade" runs through September 15th at the Ivory theater. For reservations or additional information, call 314-456-0071 or visit www.r-stheatrics.com.