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.

Hair

Slide1I shouldn’t be partisan.  Anybody can read this and as a journalistic document or review, this should appeal to all people.  Though there is something undeniably liberal about the classic 1968 musical Hair, which the University of Pittsburgh is currently staging through November 20th.  You can see it when you walk in the door, a big “Love trumps Hate” sign.  You can see it in the diversity of the cast, the hippie mentality.  You can see it in the director’s statement in the program:

Our production aims to embrace the original purpose of Hair: to protest, praise and call to action.  We wanted to put the concerns of today’s youth on stage—to show how these songs live in our world now.  While our cast members may not have experienced the pain of a nation torn apart by war, we can all recognize an electorate toxically divided, and political rhetoric coarsened and vulgarized.  We hear people argue in favor of religious intolerance, LGBTQ+ marginalization, and xenophobia.  We see a culture of sexual violence dismissed with the wave of a hand.  We march in the streets to protest the murder of yet another unarmed person of color. 

And to go beyond the partisan opinion to talk about this production as an entity that is representative of two times and places: I have to definitively say this is very good.  It is great.  Badass and wonderful!  It has made me proud to be alma mater at Pitt.  I didn’t know they had it in them.  I am impressed and I urge everyone who can to see this musical.

First of all, the students are so into it.  This is an essence given from the before the play.  The actors freely walk around the stage, on the balconies, through the crowd.  This seems gimmicky, but it does a fantastic job of setting up a vibe.  There is a lot of commitment in this play, which is a point I’ll come back to.  I really loved the candidness with which these actors could improvise.

The kids on the balcony yell down to the audience, encouraging play: “Hey, I like your shoes!”

A co-actress puts her barefoot up on the balcony rail, the same actor exclaims, “I like your shoes too!”

A girl with long hippie hair yells to an actor resting in anticipation on a bus-like set piece, “Eugene!  How’s the bus?”

“Groovy!” he replies, with two thumbs up.

This is corny.  I mean, Hair is a broadway musical.  It’s corny in it’s incarnation.  But this really gives the atmosphere that this was probably a really fun show to do.  This is massively important.

“Get off the rail!” A boy with a ‘Free Hugs’ signs yells at his co-star.

A fringe-vested hippie retorts, “I don’t follow rules!”

And the long-hair ‘free hugs’ kid replies, “You have to follow some rules, like gravity.  I don’t want you falling on these good people before the show begins!”

There is an air in the Charity Randall Theatre.  For a gigantic limestone castle throne room, they do their best at making it seem like it’s invaded by the sensation of kids on grass keeping on the “Don’t Step on the Grass” grass.  Signs hang which say, “At what age did you lose your compassion?” and “Hate is easy, Love takes Courage.”

At this point, I’m a third done with my review and I haven’t talked about the actual show at all yet.  There’s a reason for that.  This play is so much about atmosphere.  It’s about a time which felt imperative: 1967.

The uncertainty of the bomb has haunted the world for more than 20 years, and the apocalyptic vision of Vietnam and its draft are absolutely devastating for those just coming into their existential consciousness.  JFK’s death in ’63 and Malcolm X’s death in ’65 were signs of progressive control being lost; this dystopian reality protracted onto the visionary aesthetic qualities of drugs and music in order to create an apex of finale.  This was a time when the end felt near.  And the realizations this musical yearns towards is to make clear that life is beautiful and should be cherished with every ounce of being.

Please note: Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968.  Hair premiered on April 29th, the same month.

This musical is about time.  The dawning of “The Age of Aquarius” is a premonition of some transition, something key that happens amidst the cyclone of fear, hate and disaster.  This musical is medicine.  It comes at a pinpoint, right now.  Xenophobia and bigotry has saddled this country in an incredulous lurch and this play synthesizes two points of time when the future is unknown, scary and the present is startling and beautiful, i.e. 1967 and right now.

The production is stupendous.  Give credence to choreographer Amanda Olmstead, a veritable shepherd in her own right.  At any given time there are between 1-31 odd young adults bounding electrically on stage, synchronized with impeccable grace.

I’d like to also give a huge thank you to director Cindy Croot for making this production so palpable.  This was a well-felt illustration of a historically viable and so alive today, thematically.  There is so much audience interaction.  So much in this play is in your face and very active.  There are real tears on stage.  Each actor gives a genuine performance.  As I’ve said before, these kids are into it.  This is a diverse cast, racially and sexually.  I understand that’s the original casting as well, but the diversity of the cast is so representative of how I see millennials.  This is a play that celebrates blackness, queerness, free-thought and apostasy.  It tries to really go places on the astral plane, a discovery of inner-self and outer universe.  It subscribes so heavily to the meanings of Man in the big question of “Why?”  and this production seems to really live in that zone.  We are there.

There were a couple hang-ups.  The sound had some issues, but I imagine juggling thirty mics is an absurd task for a tech-person.  I felt like some of the songs could have been louder.  Perhaps that’s the acoustics of the room.  And that’s not to say that some of the singers really did go beyond their inhibiting means and project an exorcising weight towards the audience.  Particularly the songs, “Walking in Space,” “Easy to be Hard,” and “Let the Sunshine In” absolutely kill it.

I would love to point out more highlights, but there’s too many.  There are 31 actors and the musical really allows for distinct stars for nearly all of its 27 songs.

One thing I will comment on is the nakedness of the actors on the stage during intermission,  playing something outside of the musical: The Zombies’ “Time of the Season”.   The audience chatters to themselves.  Some of the other actors saunter about, but they are engaged with what’s on stage:  listening to the guitarist, the actor bongoing on the speaker and the impressive male soprano.  They are hearing this drum circle atmosphere over the disaffected small talk that creates the sound of a typical intermission.  It’s such a commitment to the feeling.  You can just tell these kids are into this show.  This epitomizes an agency for them, and thank god.  It is meaningful and spiritual in its body, which is these 31 actors who move electrically synchronized on stage.  They are comfortable and it shows in their risks and their timing.

This whole play has timing.

It is diverse and shows such an immense diversity of singers throughout, outlining a truly collective piece.

This show is medicine.  It is relevant.  It is spiritually uplifting and most importantly it is truly, truly beautiful.

Special thanks to the University of Pittsburgh for complimentary press tickets. Hair runs at the Charity Randall Theater in Oakland through November 20th. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Intimate Apparel

Slide1(1)There is a certain added poignancy felt when watching the marvelously, passionately staged work Intimate Apparel at the University of Pittsburgh Stages. Set in New York in 1905 and functioning as a quasi-autobiography of the playwright Lynn Nottage’s own grandmother’s story, Apparel tells the story of a young woman who makes the pilgrimage to America to work as a seamstress and pursue the sensationalized ideal of the American dream, only to find the emotional and social complications, vexations and agonies often outweigh the efficaciousness and pristine appeal of this dream.  Much of the intense emotions attached are connected to the brilliant stage design and innate ambience imbuing the theatre in which Apparel is staged.  The minimalist yet evocative scenic design created by Gianni Downs (complemented and augmented by the masterfully stirring light direction of Lauryn M. Thomas) successfully creates a microcosm for the audience to be transported into—it both conveys the environment and setting of the play’s action, but also doubles as a scenic translation of the interiority of the protagonist—Esther Mills—as she struggles with her hardships and isolation in New York, as well as the intensity of the adjustment for the other characters.

But much of the emotional catalyst in watching Apparel comes from the current social and political tempestuousness, and the visceral presence of the actors bringing the roles to life.  Apparel, in more detail, tells Esther Mills story, as she comes to New York to toil as a seamstress (a trade at which she is incredibly gifted) and experiences firsthand the complex social and behavioral dynamics of wealthy white women, wealthily-wed African American women in the tense aftermath of Slavery and Civil War culture, and fellow immigrants.  As Esther creates bonds and friendships with various women of dramatically different social and experiential sects, Esther begins to deduce the abnegations and personal sacrifices of happiness women must endure and have forced upon them in order to achieve stability and some semblance of a selfhood and place in the seemingly idyllic sprawl of New York.  The strength of the play is showing the nuances of the female friendships, and how the language of the women subtly conveys the inexorable longing and frustrations experienced by women in various realms.  Tyler T. Cruz is astonishingly and quietly powerful in her first ever theatrical production, giving Esther a reserved, gradual defiant somberness that drives her interactions with her fellow characters/actors with a distinct grace.  Equally as remarkable and equally as nascent in her hopefully soon-to-be budding actor career is Chidera Mgbudem, who brings the vivacious and challenging Mayme to life, and the interactions between Esther and Mayme serve to enrich but further complicate the social matrices and moral questions that ensconce Esther’s everyday existence.

Apparel is replete with a cast that embodies each character with the multidimensional emotions and travails that are true to the immigrant narrative.  Particularly heart-wrenching is the fated romance (of sorts) between Esther and Mr. Brooks—played with soft incandescence by Nick Bernstein—that highlights the aching separation and thwarted connections experienced by two individuals thrust into a discombobulated world of cultural and social acclimation, viciously impeded by the racial/bigoted trappings enforced by the society in which they try to thrive.  Apparel is notable for using the garments and process of clothing people as an extended metaphor for the delicate, fraught fabrics of staking ones selfhood and realizing the tears and challenges unique to the experience of women, people of color, and immigrants.

Intimate Apparel, directed by KJ Gilmer, is produced by University of Pittsburgh stages at the Henry Heymann Theatre and runs through October 16th. For tickets and more information click here. Special thanks to the University of Pittsburgh for complimentary press tickets.

See what else Pitt has for us this season in our season preview.

Collegiate Preview 2016

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College campuses throughout the city are springing back to life with students moving into their dorms, buying books and preparing for another semester of learning. With schools gearing up for fall term we want to make sure our readers are in the know when it comes to Pittsburgh’s collegiate  stage productions. Our first ever Collegiate Preview covers the four major universities and what they have to offer audiences the 2016-2017 season.

Point Park’s upcoming Conservatory season includes The Who’s Tommy, The Sea, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical, Big Love, Sweet Charity, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin or the Most Popular American Play You’ve Never Seen. Plus some some surprises from the REP and the Conservatory Dance Company. Read more about what the Pittsburgh Playhouse’s 2016-2017 season has for us here.

The University of Pittsburgh Stages’ 2016-2017 season brings us a nice mix of classic musicals and modern plays. Pitt’s upcoming season includes Intimate Apparel, Hair, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Baltimore, and Peter and the Starcatcher. Click here to see what we’re in for this school year!

Carnegie Mellon University’s subscription series includes The Playboy of the Western WorldThe RoverRagtime, and The Three Musketeers.  Plus bonus Director Series and New Work Series! Check out what CMU will be bringing us here.

Duquense Univeristy’s Red Masquers has big plans this season starting with Avenue Q, How I Learned to Drive, Rust, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Proof, and True West. Finishing off the school year with a weekend of One Acts for Charity. Click here to find out more!

Follow along with our Collegiate adventures on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with the hashtag #PITRUniversity!