SU Drama’s ‘Parade’ pleases the ear, challenges the mind
The Tony Award-winning Broadway musical about intolerance and bigotry in the old South raises issues America has not fully addressed
Like many Americans, I grew up reading and learning about America’s civil rights movements. Victims of racially motivated violence in this country are burned into my memory — names such as Emmett Till, James Byrd Jr., Mary Turner, Vincent Chin, and Leo Frank.
These names remain symbols of America’s difficulty in coming to grips with its past and present. And Syracuse University Drama’s production of Parade, which opened its new 2014-15 season, is a powerful reminder that these men and women are not only markers of America’s still-unfulfilled promise of equality, but also individuals with loves, hopes, dreams, and humanity.
The musical follows the events that led to the infamous lynching of Leo Frank in Atlanta, Georgia in 1915, a lynching that was directly involved in the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan. The production does a strong job of building a complex picture of the racial tension in the South following the American Civil War.
Alex Peterson’s set — with its haunting image of the hanging tree up front and screens upon which Projections Designer Katherine Freer masterfully displays historical images of the murder scene, lynching, and newspapers clippings — provides a constant reminder that this play is exploring an historical event. The play never shies away from the ugliness of the time, but also provides the audience with wonderfully sweet moments of insight into the relationship between Leo Frank and his wife Lucille; a relationship that blossoms after Leo is jailed. The deft interweaving of these two storylines provides the production with its emotional heft.
The play begins (and often returns to) Confederate Memorial Day and its attendant parades. Here, townspeople celebrate the Confederacy and mourn the loss of the Civil War. The production’s heavy use of Confederate flags, along with rousing speeches, bombastic singing and a disabled Confederate veteran, provide a backdrop of the insular south and its parochial views on the Civil War and Reconstruction — an institution rooted in white supremacy and resistance to outside influence from the North.
As a Jew from Brooklyn, Leo Frank was already the subject of unwelcome attention and scrutiny by the locals, and it’s hardly surprising to see this outsider used as a scapegoat. At the trial, the oily prosecutor Hugh Dorsey — perfectly portrayed by Ezekiel Edmonds with a veneer of Southern grace and charm that hides his Machiavellian manipulation of racist and anti-Semitic attitudes — lies and tampers with the witnesses to assure Frank’s conviction.
It’s clear from the start that Frank is merely a pawn in the game of politics played by Dorsey and the local establishment. Add to this mix the power-hungry police-beat reporter Britt Craig (convincingly played by Michael Roach) and the talented Reid Watson’s manipulative partisan right-wing writer Tom Watson, and it’s clear that Frank is unlikely to get a fair trial.
When we are introduced to the Franks, Leo (Ethan Saviet) and Lucille (Ana Marcu) are at the breakfast table going through the motions of eating with obvious discomfort. (The awkward silence here is deafening.) Though they have already been married a few years, the two do not fully know one-another.
Following Frank’s arrest, Marcu’s Lucille begins to reveal herself as a savvy and loving wife, doggedly asserting her husband’s innocence — a revelation of sorts to Saviet, considering the buttoned-up Leo has long been emotionally unavailable to her. By the end of the play, as the two sing of their devotion to each other in the number All the Wasted Time, the pair’s journey to a tender caring marriage based on mutual respect is complete.
Marcu and Saviet deserve praise for their ability to present this transformation so believably, and with such chemistry. The blossoming of their love makes Leo’s brutal murder at the hands of a lynch mob all the more tragic to the audience. Our anger at the miscarriage of justice and base racial violence is tempered with sadness over the loss of Leo’s kindness and the affect his death will have on Lucille. The political is merged with the personal.
Saviet in particular is to be commended for his credible dramatic portrayal in this extraordinarily demanding role, with powerful and nuanced singing that complemented his acting.
His Leo begins with with a nervous and frightened energy that manifests in a twitchy demeanor and inability to keep still, with interrupted strands of dialogue that occasionally burst into a speedy staccato. It is at once clear to us that this is a man uncomfortable living beneath his own skin. Saviet shows his character’s slow growth into self-confidence through the horror of his ordeal and concomitant flowering of his relationship with his wife, Lucille.
In one particularly memorable scene during the trial, Saviet presents a vilified version of his character molded from the testimony of his accusers: a smooth and lecherous factory supervisor who uses his power and authority to seduce young female workers at the shop. At the start of the scene, Saviet lasciviously throws his leg up on the courtroom table and morphs into this antagonist without missing a beat.
There were other performers who shined in this SU Drama production, with a quality of the singing that was consistently good. Marcu’s voice is especially gorgeous, with its handsome vibrato and confident delivery.
Two individual numbers stood out at the performance I attended. Michael Roach’s Britt Craig brought the house down following his rousing rendition of the jazzy number, Big News. Later in the second act, Jarrod Everett as Jim Conley impressed the listener with the soulful and bluesy Feel the Rain Fall — a spiritual-inspired song accompanied by the jangling of chains. Everett hit all the right notes in this song designed not only to evoke the image of a chain gang, but also to show his character’s unwillingness to cooperate with the authorities.
The strength of the singing, both individually and in the ensemble numbers, was enhanced by Andrea Leigh-Smith’s vivid choreography. Parade is replete with complex dance sequences that are visually striking, buoyed by the addition of percussive effects such as stomping. The musical also contains a masterful rendition of a cakewalk to close out the first act — a nod, perhaps, to its critique of race relations in American history. In similar fashion, the conclusion of Parade uses a choreographed song exploring racial injustices and its role American politics.
The show’s finale includes a rousing ensemble number that draws on the opening sequence The Old Red Hills of Home. Much like the start of the play, this song is portrayed as if it were a Confederate anthem, sung by the entire white community during the Confederate Memorial Day parade.
Given that the play carefully unmasks the violent history of Confederate memorials, this “tribute” creates an uncomfortable moment for the audience, which is left to contemplate the continued relevance of these attitudes in present-day America. The choreography of this sequence positions the actors around the stage so that the white townspeople finish singing and end with a flamboyant flourish, arms high in the air. Non-white characters are relegated to the sidelines in this number, forced to look on tacitly. Were we not haunted by the memory of Leo and Lucille, it would almost feel like a successful rewriting of history that has erased those experiences.
SU Drama’s production of Parade is a wonderful and important work that both entertains and stimulates the mind. Without preaching or chastising, it raises significant issues that we have yet to fully address in America. Perhaps most importantly, Parade invites the audience to recognize the full humanity of those that have felt the brunt of America’s unwillingness to address inequality.
What: Parade, book by Alfred Uhry, music by Jason Robert Brown, directed by Marie Kemp
Who: Syracuse Drama Department
Where: Storch Theater/SU Drama Theater Complex, 820 E. Genesee Street, Syracuse
Performance reviewed: 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014 (opening night)
Remaining performances: Plays through Oct. 19
Length: About 2 hours and 35 minutes, including 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $19 general admission ($17 seniors 65+ and full-time students)
Call: 315-443-3275 or vpa.syr.edu/drama
Family guide: Adult themes, sexual violence, violence