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Wednesday, 04 September 2013 22:00

The passing parade

The passing parade
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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"Never safe - always R-S" is the somewhat cryptic motto of R-S Theatrics, a local small professional theatre company that boldly goes where many other groups have rarely, if ever, gone before.  An outgrowth of the now defunct Soundstage Productions, which specialized in staged readings of new and rarely-performed scripts, R-S is fearless about bringing different and challenging material to St. Louis audiences.  Their current project, Jason Robert Brown's 1998 musical drama "Parade," just might be the Platonic Ideal of an R-S show.

With a book by Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry ("Driving Miss Daisy," "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," and many others) and direction by Harold Prince, "Parade" looked like a winner when it opened at New York's Beaumont Theatre in December of 1998.  It garnered multiple Tone and Drama Desk awards, but ran for only 39 previews and 84 regular performances.

The subject matter might have had something to do with it.  Based on historical events, "Parade" is the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager in 1913 Marietta, Georgia, who is falsely accused of raping and murdering a thirteen-year-old employee.  Framed by politically ambitious prosecutor Hugh Dorsey and convicted in an atmosphere of antisemitic hysteria whipped up by Nativist publisher Tom Watson,  Frank is facing execution when Georgia Governor John Slaton, realizing that the conviction was based on shaky and possibly falsified evidence, commutes the sentence to life in a minimum security prison farm.  Enraged, a racist mob drags Frank from prison and lynches him.  Leo's widow is left with the cold comfort that Leo is with God.

"The Lion King" it ain't.  Small wonder that it failed to survive on Broadway, where musicals have increasingly come to resemble theme parks.  Even New Line Theatre's Scott Miller, a man not afraid to tackle risky material, confessed in an interview with "Parade" director Christina Rios on his show "Break a Leg" here on 88.1 KDHX that he had considered doing the show but was "a little scared of it."

But that, of course, is what makes it perfect for the "never safe" company, R-S.  "For me, what makes it so powerful," said Ms. Rios in that interview, "is the fact that it's based on a historical event that no one ever talks about.  It's really one of those things that could only have happened because a 'perfect storm' of things were happening." Child labor, a massive influx of European Jews fleeing oppression in their homelands, the flowering of "yellow journalism"—it all combined to create a firestorm of hate.  "Ultimately," she notes, "this play is about The Mob...what does it take to turn that switch inside of people and make them capable of horrible things?"

Robert Breig, who plays the role of publisher Watson, agrees.  In an email interview, he said that, for him, "Parade" "reveals how an entire city—as well as the national press—twisted the facts in favor of an outcome which was less based on fact than on an over-arching need for revenge and 'justice' that went far beyond the fabricated lies against Leo and Lucille Frank."

"I've had many ask me why should they come to see such a heart wrenching and sad story. My answer is to never forget what happened to Leo and Lucille Frank 100 years ago, and to look around us today and hopefully make a positive difference where we still see similar strokes of hatred and injustice being fueled against people who are nothing more than 'different'."

Ken Haller, who plays the prosecutor Dorsey, also sees contemporary echoes in Frank's story.  "For the past five years," he observes, "I’ve been the board president of PROMO, Missouri’s statewide LGBT civil rights organization. Being in a show that depicts how caustic and deadly prejudice can be cuts deep for me, and portraying someone who gives voice to these prejudices is a harrowing and exhilarating experience."

"Parade" runs September 6 through 15 at The Ivory Theatre, 7620 Michigan in the Carondelet neighborhood in south St. Louis.  For more information: r-stheatrics.com.

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