Wednesday, March 21, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "PARADE" at Cygnet Theatre

A "Parade" Not to Be Missed

Cygnet Theatre combines a powerhouse cast, tragic tale and soaring score to tell the fascinating story of Leo Frank

By Donnie Matsuda

Parade is quite a remarkable achievement.

The stirring musical by Alfred Uhry (book) and Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) achieves the unthinkable by taking the “hot button” issues of Leo Frank’s legacy – rape, murder, racism and tragic injustice – and making them palatable (at times, even entertaining) to a musical theatre audience. It’s not often that you see so many complex themes handled so intelligently and presented in such a compelling and thought-provoking way. But, with its insightful book and hauntingly beautiful score, Parade succeeds in musicalizing its tragic tale, all the while conveying some important messages about the dangers of mob mentality, the callousness of bigotry, and the perils of yellow journalism.

Cygnet’s current revival is even more of an achievement, seeing as Parade marks the company’s biggest production ever staged at the Old Town Theatre. With a large cast of sixteen and an orchestra of eight, Cygnet is without a doubt pushing their artistic boundaries (not to mention their show budget) with this monstrosity of a musical. Here, their ambition has more than paid off, resulting in a first rate revival that is as spectacular as it is stirring.

Sandy Campbell and Brandon Joel Maier. Photo by Daren Scott.

Parade is based on the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish Yankee living in Atlanta in 1913, who was falsely accused of raping and murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old girl who worked in his pencil factory. The musical chronicles Frank’s subsequent trial, the media frenzy and bigoted community who rallied for his imprisonment, and his wife Lucille’s diligent efforts to see her husband freed and his name cleared. Written in 1998, the musical won Tony Awards for its book and score, but failed to catch on with a mainstream audience and it had a limited run on Broadway (as well as a short lived national tour). Fortunately for us, Cygnet is reviving this rarely-produced gem of a musical and their stellar staging of this remarkable piece of work is simply not to be missed.

At the helm of Cygnet’s powerhouse cast are two terrific leads who deliver some exceptional and incredibly nuanced performances. Brandon Joel Maier masterfully portrays the nebbishly neurotic and socially awkward Leo Frank. From his beady bespectacled glances to his constant wringing of the hands, he has his character’s quirky mannerisms nailed down pat, while also showing great versatility in this complex role. Maier is also blessed with a smooth bari-tenor voice and he frequently (and effortlessly) launches into some beautiful ballads, including “How Can I Call This Home” and “It’s Hard to Speak My Heart.” As Southern-belle-turned-steel-magnolia Lucille, Sandy Campbell turns in an exceptionally gut-wrenching and heart-breaking performance as Leo’s supportive wife. Armed with a bell-clear, soaring soprano, Campbell attacks her haunting anthems (“You Don’t Know This Man” and “Do It Alone”) with vocal clarity and heartfelt emotion. Together, Maier and Campbell are compelling as a couple whose once strained relationship blossoms amid the challenge of public opinion, and their Act II duet “All the Wasted Time” is one of the most beautifully sung and poignantly staged duets this reviewer has seen on a San Diego stage.

Sandy Campbell (center) surrounded by the company of "Parade." Photo by Daren Scott.

As Governor Slaton, Rick D. Meads gives a winning performance as the slick politician whose moral conscience gets the better of him, while David Kirk Grant does a bang up job as the slimy prosecutor Hugh Dorsey. Meanwhile, long-time member of Lamb’s Players ensemble cast, Bryan Barbarin finally gets his chance to shine in the role of Jim Conley and he nearly steals the show with his powerful, soulful renditions of “That’s What He Said” and “Feel the Rain Fall.” And not to be vocally upstaged, the factory girls – Katie Whalley as Iola Stover, Amy Perkins as Monteen, and Kathleen Calvin as Essie – wan serious and somber in their haunting confessions and subsequent reprise.

And last but certainly not least, Cygnet’s perfectly harmonized and beautifully blended supporting cast does not disappoint as they handle the substantial vocal demands of this ensemble-heavy musical with ease. They all turn in rich performances and they deserve special mention here: Jacob Caltrider as the sweet-voiced Frankie Epps, Samantha Littleford as the tortured Mary Phagan, Briona Daugherty as the steely Mrs. Phagan, Gigi Coddington as the earnest Minnie McKnight, Geno Carr as the staunch crusader Tom Watson, and Steve Gunderson, Dylan Hoffinger, and Tom Stephenson in multiple supporting roles. When they all join in together in the ensemble numbers, the volume of their singing is powerful, the quality of their voices is impeccable, and their ability to emote and sell a story through song is simply stunning.

Sandy Campbell and Brandon Joel Maier. Photo by Daren Scott.

Director Sean Murray keeps the dramatic tone and gritty gravitas of the piece intact while also allowing his Leo and Lucille to fully develop and grow in their poignant partnership. While he frequently keeps our focus on the leading couple, he also introduces an incredibly talented cast of supporting characters and gives each of them their chance to shine. Since the sweeping script and soaring score speak for themselves, Murray is smart enough not to get in the way of the show’s scripted storytelling and instead allows events to unfold as organically and as seamlessly as possible.

Murray's subdued staging goes hand in hand with David Brannen’s simple, yet striking, choreography. Brannen has a gift for adapting his dances to the style and period of a piece and here he manages to create some incredibly innovative and visually arresting movement sequences that are as captivating as they are compelling – particularly genius are his bright and bouncy mimed buggy-ride in “The Picture Show,” his creative integration of newspapers in “Real Big News,” his stately cakewalk in “Pretty Music,” and his chain gang hammer-ography in “Feel the Rain Fall.”

Overall, the technical elements of the show are some of the best that Cygnet has ever produced. Sean Fanning’s evocative set design is framed by era-appropriate wooden staircases and centrally dominated by a gigantic oil painting of a gnarly oak tree that features prominently in the show’s prologue and finale. This oil painting actually evokes different locales when lit in different ways by Chris Rynne’s dramatic lighting, and these darker elements are given brilliant pops of color thanks to Shirley Pierson’s sumptuous ragtime-inspired costumes. And, musically, Billy Thompson leads a tuneful eight–piece orchestra that delivers the complex and stylistically-diverse score with power and panache. Since the music is such an integral element in a show like this, when it is done right (as it is here) the effect is truly thrilling.

The company of "Parade." Photo by Daren Scott.

It all comes together so beautifully in Cygnet’s masterful staging of this monumental musical. While it is quite an achievement that this dark piece of American history is still being told today, it is perhaps even more remarkable that it has found its way here to San Diego in such a riveting revival.

So, get thee to the Old Town Theatre and witness this Parade yourself - before it passes on by.

Things to know before you go: Parade presented by Cygnet plays at The Old Town Theatre through April 29, 2012. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with a 15 minute intermission. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 7pm. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (619) 337-1525 or visit

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