Parade

Parade-PosterPainful stories and shameful histories benefit from the illumination of dramatization. While the audience views past events in almost real time, we are required to look and perhaps to learn.

Parade is more than worthy of your attention for these reasons and the stellar performances of a largely student cast at University of Pittsburgh Stages. You’ll be part of an event that echoes many recent events, conversations, and controversies from the last century with today’s societal and political overtones. This Parade production plays all its cards handsomely to tell a difficult true story beautifully as a well-crafted tragedy should.

It’s Atlanta, 1913, just 50 years after the Civil War. The first images are a soldier coming home from that war then we see his older self as Confederate Memorial Day is observed with a parade and festivities. In this distinctly Southern setting, 13-year-old worker Mary Phagan is found murdered the following day in the Atlanta factory where Leo Frank, a Brooklyn-born Jew married to a Lucille, a Georgia native, is supervisor. Frank is deemed a most likely suspect.

Parade follows Leo’s experience from that May holiday to the terror of imprisonment through the false accusations born of community hysteria during his trial. After the eventual commutation of his death sentence to life imprisonment by the Georgia governor, there is a crowning horrific irony. Local men take Frank from the jail and lynch him by hanging in nearby Marietta, Mary’s hometown. No spoilers here. The historic case shed light nationally to Anti-Semitism and fueled the founding of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). It also ignited a more active Ku Klux Klan.

Director Robert Frankenberry is known as a versatile singer-actor, conductor, arranger, and lecturer in music theater at Pitt Theatre Arts. Frankenberry stages this 1998 musical imaginatively, adroitly moving his 28 actors efficiently on Gianni Downs’ lovely two-level set and even into the audience. A high frame for projected elements–ranging from the hills of Georgia to sensationalistic trial headlines–fills the space below the proscenium arch.

Roger Zahab conducts the University Symphony Orchestra of 31 instrumentalists in Tony Award winner Don Sebesky’s full orchestration. This version of the score was heard only once before for the 2015 Manhattan Concert Production’s Parade In Concert, conducted by the composer.

Jason Robert Brown’s score is indeed American flavored with some Southern spice (even a touch of Stephen Foster), replete with some lively patriotic percussion. At the Nov. 10 preview some cellos were missing, while Frankenberry told us he filled in for the guitarist.

Alfred Uhry’s script covers the timeline of Frank’s dilemma, trial, and death. The mystery of Mary’s murder gets muddled as theories about the crime are magnified by gossip and supposition. The writers believed in Frank’s innocence, but while Parade reinforces that belief, there’s no escaping that feeling that you are in the South. With the opening and closing number “The Old Red Hills of Home”, it’s all there: post-Reconstruction pride and ancestors who fought for “The Cause”.  The odd juxtaposition of New Yorker Leo and Georgian Lucille represents the ongoing tension between the Southerns and “the other”.

Dan Mayhak as Leo and Brittany Bara as Lucille create the heart of the story, bringing nuance and chemistry to their depiction of a devoted couple who likely took one another and Frank’s position for granted prior to this disaster. Their soaring and emotional duets are highlights of the production.

Dan Mayhak shines as Leo, traversing the deep layers of Frank’s discomfiture throughout, his work ethic, and his Jewish roots. Mayhak, a fourth year Pitt student recently seen in Front Porch’s Violet and Pitt’s Hair, is capable of playing Leo’s veiled emotion and subtext. His wonderfully sung numbers include “Leo’s Statement: It’s Hard to Speak My Heart”. During the vaudevillian “Factory Girls / Come Up to My Office” we see Leo’s possible “other side” when he leaves his trial defendant’s chair to participate in the incriminating number.

Brittany Bara is alternately subtle and passionate as Leo’s wife Lucille. Devoted but eventually weary of taunts around town, Lucille is steadfast and practical. This second-year performance pedagogy MFA candidate’s performance reflects her professional scope. Bara’s vocal performance is outstanding with “You don’t know this man” beautifully poignant and complex.

Tru Verret-Fleming, a pro seen most recently in the Scottsboro Boys at the Point Park’s REP Company, turns in a superb debut performance at PItt as Jim Conley, the pencil factory janitor (aka “sweeper”) who is led to further incriminate Frank. Verret-Fleming has the charisma to sell a number or spin a yarn, particularly when depicting what’s it’s physically like to be part of a chain gang (“Blues: Feel the Rain Fall”) or sealing Frank’s fate with his accounts of assisting the supervisor in his factory interactions.

While these performances would shine in a professional production, the wonderful thing is that this is true of all the lead performers in Parade. They undoubtedly support and inspire the mainly student cast.

Stand outs in other leading roles include Rachelmae Pulliam as Mary’s mother and Sally Slayton, the governor’s wife. Her lullaby-like “My daughter will forgive you” is heart-wrenching. Mature and polished, Alex Knapp is the savvy prosecuting attorney who carves his political path as he deviously manages the case, plotting with the governor and sneering in the courtroom.

As Governor Slayton, Zev Woskoff navigates the ramifications of his character’s pursuit of both political success and the truth. Dr. William Banks brings operatic chops to the role of the factory’s nightwatchman, Newt Lee. Tyler Prah as Frankie Epps (who fancies then mourns for Mary), Emily Cooper as Mary Phagan, and Davis Weaver as the returning young soldier who opens the show all provide strong performances and moments.

The cast is authentically costumed by KJ Gilmer. Hannah Blume’s movement coaching includes same snappy tap and dance steps. Meghan Bressler employs the Randall’s lighting range, illuminating the actors wherever they go. Zach Brown’s sound is fairly balanced and will likely work out any challenges over the run.

For a closer look at the production elements, Pitt has a wonderful online collection that provides audience https://pitt.libguides.com/2017-18mainstage/parade

The deep themes and controversial history of the Frank case and lynching deserve a closer look. You can read more about the musical’s history in a 2016 Playbill story Think You Know Parade? Think Again. And The Tuskegee Institute Archives reveal the staggering number of lynching not only the South, but throughout the US, 1877-1968.

Parade is onstage at the University of Pittsburgh Stages through Nov. 19 with performances Wed.-Sat. at 8 pm and Sun. at 2 pm. Tickets range from $12-$25.

Finding New Solutions in Old Problems: Pitt Stages’ Upcoming Season

10547577_925614320797878_2778221222100940625_nFor an extraordinary variety of reasons better cataloged elsewhere, it is a confusing time to be a young person in America. Thanks to a blame game-y media environment, one needs only type in the phrase “Millenials Are Killing” into Google’s search bar to admire our various war crimes against chain restaurants and department stores (or whatever). This generational hostility has created a kind of disinterest in what Millennials actually feel about the world around them to older generations – which is what makes college theater a more important space than it has been in a long time.

The University of Pittsburgh’s Theater program features an unusual amount of agency for its student body. Besides playing host to a series of shows that are entirely student run, the program also allows its students to have a say in what mainstage shows, which are typically directed by theater professors, will end up making the cut. This season features an eclectic mix of classics with a twist and unconventional works by contemporary writers, and will likely be an opportunity to hear young voices in a raw creative setting.

OurTown-Poster-WebFirst up at the University of Pittsburgh Theater’s fall season is Our Town. Originally written by Thornton Wilder, Our Town is primarily about the complexities of small town life in early 1900’s America. However, Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama isn’t your average slice of life Americana. Rather, it is a dark, complex reflection on life and death. The play is a working definition of minimalism in theater, featuring performances that, on the whole, are voice-less, and an omniscient narrator who directly addresses his audience.

Despite its familiar old-school trappings, director Ricardo Vila-Roger stressed to me that Pitt’s production would be immediate, and prescient.

“[Our Town]…is possibly even more important today, in that everyone is kind of rushing to get to the next thing,” Vila-Roger said. “Our main character [doesn’t realize] all she’s missed because she’s not paying attention to what’s in front of her. It’s the same today with cell phones.”

The production will also, unlike Wilder’s original production, feature a diverse cast.  “We’re telling the story of a lot of people, not just one kind of person. If I’m going to create a town on stage, I’m going to create the town I’d want to live in.”

Our Town will run from October 5th to the 15th at the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre.

Parade-PosterNext up is Parade, a musical based on a true story that was originally written by Alfred Uhry with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, this time directed by Rob Frankenberry. Of all the shows in Pitt’s upcoming season, Parade is easily the story that most encapsulates contemporary social discourse. Our main character is Leo Frank, a Jewish American accused of murder whose wildly unethical trial was a keystone moment in the founding of the Anti-Defamation League, as well as an inciting action in the reformation of the KKK.

The musical, set in 1913, follows several characters of some historical import, including an opportunistic journalist who capitalized on the event, a jury fueled by the distrust of outsiders, and the hapless man at the trial’s center.

Vila-Roger described the musical as “important, and very difficult,” It is also a potential moment for reflection for its audience and cast. “The music is beautiful, and I think the message – good Lord – is so important right now.”

Parade will be performed from November 9th through the 19th at the Charity Randall Theatre.

Besides Pitt’s mainstage shows, the theater also produces Student Lab shows, which are almost entirely directed and produced by students. The first student lab show is [title of show], an extraordinarily meta musical that is about its own creation and execution. Originally written by Jeff Bowen, [title of show] is quite literally a work in progress, beginning with the cast – all playing themselves in the show’s initial production – discussing what the opening of their new show should sound like as they’re performing their initial brainstorm. Pitt’s production will be directed by Alex Ditmar and will run from October 18th through the 22nd at the Henry Heymann theater.

Next comes Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck!, directed by Chloe Torrence and originally written by Jay Torrence. The play is a fictionalized retelling of a real tragedy that befell the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus in 1918 when a train collided with the circus’ caravan, resulting in many of the performers’ dwellings being set ablaze. More than 80 lives were lost, and over a hundred more were injured. Roustabout, however, focuses on the colorful lives of those affected, and seeks to extract something more from the senseless accident. It will run from November 15th through the 19th at the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre.

Those looking for more originality and thematic complexity in their night at the theater will find that there’s plenty more to discover in Pitt’s Student Lab Show’s upcoming productions. There’s The Lifeboat is Sinking, a Shel Silverstein one act comedy about a woman who forces her husband to imagine their bed is a sinking ship and the boat’s dead weight his mother. The show will premiere alongside a production of An Oblation, a short one act written by the ever-inventive Taylor Mac, which is a comedy about two women who catalogue the deaths of friends and acquaintances at their own version of the last supper. Ann Amundson will direct both. Then, there is Victory on Mrs. Dandywine’s Island, written by Lanford Wilson and directed by Zev Woskoff, which is an Oscar Wilde-style spoof of high society. All three of these shows will be performed simultaneously on January 31st to February 4th at the Henry Heymann Theatre.

Pitt’s final Student Lab show will show will be Suddenly Last Summer, an underappreciated Tennesse Williams drama about a woman whose mental instability hides a dark family secret. It will be directed by Nic Bernstein and will run from April 11th through the 15th at the Henry Heymann Theater.

Meanwhile, the remaining Mainstage Productions will be a mix of the classic and contemporary, continuing with a production of Howard Ashman’s well-revered musical adaptation of the B-Movie cult classic, Little Shop of Horrors. The show will be performed on February 8th through the 18th at the Charity Randall Theatre and be directed by Reginald Douglas. This will be followed by a production of Upton Sinclair’s Marie Antoinette, directed by LeMil Eiland and running from February 15th to the 25th. The mainstage’s final production will be an original play written and directed by Cynthia Croot named Recoil. It will run from April 5th to the 15th.

At its best, university theater is a space in which people can essentially attend a show to see what’s next in American drama, and the University of Pittsburgh’s upcoming season has the potential to be particularly potent.

For tickets and more information about the University of Pittsburgh’s upcoming season, click here.