Theatre Review: ‘Parade’ at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York

The cast of “Parade” at ART of WNY.

Often it’s the true stories that make the most compelling shows on Broadway. Shows like “Evita,” “Hamilton,” “1776,” (coincidentally one word titles) add music to the drama of real life. “Parade” currently staged by the American Repertory Theater of WNY, is the 1913-15 story of a man wrongfully accused of killing a young girl who works for him. It’s also another look at corrupt politicians, ethnic profiling, groupthink, and how love is professed when it’s most needed.

“Parade” is worth it. The messaging will linger with you

When “Parade” opened in 1998, it was composer Jason Robert Brown’s (“Songs for a New World,” “ The Last Five Years”) first Broadway show, and while it was critically acclaimed, its Broadway run and 2007 London revival were short, and it’s less common in the local production canon. It’s unfortunate: it’s a solid story with strong and meaningful messages.

ART of WNY’s production was hampered by poor acoustics and uneven sound balance on its opening night that can hopefully be addressed for the rest of the run. It needs to be. There’s precious little dialogue: the story is told in Brown’s carefully crafted lyrics and ear-appealing melodies in his operatic musical style that prevails across his work.

Director Matthew Refermat took some liberties with the casting: the original Broadway show had a large cast that was pared down for the London re-staging.  Refermat shaved it down further so all actors play multiple roles except for the accused Leo Frank and his wife Lucille, well-played by actual husband and wife Jordan Levin and Melissa Levin.  This was Refermat’s best casting decision: Jordan is the perfect choice to portray the transplanted Brooklyn Jew Leo, who married the charming Southern belle Lucille. He’s skinny, bespectacled, erudite, hardworking. She’s charming, vivacious, a daughter of Atlanta. They perfectly misconnect in the first act, when he’s too work-focused and she wants to enjoy Southern traditions (“why do they celebrate a war that they lost,” ponders Leo as Atlantans wave their confederate flags at the annual confederate memorial day parade). He’s not at home in “The Red Hills of Home” in what should be a stirring opening number, unfortunately dogged by the unbalanced sound and microphones that couldn’t keep up which made Brown’s lyrics unintelligible.

The double-casting of the ensemble muddied the power of each role: the subtle costume variations didn’t help establish clear identities either. For example, Lucas Denies opens the show as a young man who discovers a book about this landmark case, and by doffing a hoodie, he becomes the suitor of young Mary Phagan who meets her death moments later. Their clever duet “The Picture Show” takes place on a trolley seat, actually the cedar chest that is the unifying, multi-purpose set piece. The deceased later morphs into a reporter’s role and other minor players, merely by tucking her braids into her collar and donning a unisex cardigan.  Ditto Nicholas Lama, a strong singer and real presence as the manipulative prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, fades in the background in lesser roles. Powerhouse baritone Brandon Williamson assumes three key roles, but again the sound quality hampered both his performance and perception when he sings. He’s a force, though, when as a fugitive lawyer Dorsey guides his testimony to sound the death knell for Leo.

Another standout was Tim Goehrig, first playing the newspaper reporter hungry for a story and Governor Slaton who encourages the prosecutor to get the conviction, but then later reviews the case and commutes Leo’s sentence.  It took mental effort to sort out when Goehrig was either person, although his voice rose above the din well.

There were a few inexplicable moments in lighting, and at least one continuity issue: when the police come to the Frank house to arrest Leo, he’s reminded – twice – to put on this shoes…which he is already wearing.

The audio issues were a little better in the second act, save for an odd reverb in Jordan Levin’s mic, which made him sound like the voice from the beyond at times. Fortunately this wasn’t the case for the moving ballad “All the Wasted Time” beautifully performed by the Levins. Melissa’s voice just soars and it’s stunning.

There were other bright spots in this cast, including some very young and first-time ART of WNY cast members, particularly Talia Mobley, a high school sophomore. These are the casting risks that pay off for the actor and the audience alike.

It’s good to see Don Jenczka behind the upright piano leading the band: Brown’s known for his strong piano lines and Jenczka is up for it. The band (percussion, woodwinds, and two French horns) is also on stage, and overpowered the singers in this acoustically challenged venue. Perhaps the band would have been more successful in the loft space above the stage that was used as Leo’s jail cell.

Despite these challenges, “Parade” is worth it. The messaging will linger with you:  it takes generations to change a society and break free from history’s shackles. People from different cultures are just…different, not to be feared. And when a partner loves you enough to fight for you when no one else will, the rest doesn’t matter.

Running Time:  Approximately 3 Hours with a 15 minute intermission.

“Parade” runs to April 13, 2019 and is produced by American Repertory Theatre Of Western New York. For more information, click here.