Powerful 'Parade' marches into Houston
Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

An infamous miscarriage of justice, an emotionally charged trial and an unexpected love story supply the powerful substance of Parade.

At 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and Mondays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through April 13 at Masquerade Theatre, 1537 N. Shepherd. Tickets are $15-$25. Call 713-861-7045.

One of the most acclaimed new musicals of recent years, Parade makes its Houston debut tonight at Masquerade Theatre.

Parade recounts the true story of Leo Frank, a transplanted Brooklyn Jew working as a factory superintendent in 1913 Atlanta. When a young factory worker is found murdered, Frank's outsider status makes him a convenient scapegoat. With opportunistic politicians and reporters stoking the fires of anti-Semitism and lingering animosity toward Yankees 50 years after the Civil War, Frank finds himself railroaded for a crime he didn't commit.

Until this crisis, Frank and wife Lucille, a self-effacing "assimilated" Southern Jew, have shared a polite, passionless marriage. Only in their desperate struggle to exonerate him, or at least have his death sentence commuted, do they discover how much they need and love each other.

Parade's book is by Alfred Uhry, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Driving Miss Daisy and a Tony award for The Last Night of Ballyhoo.
Andrew Innerarity / Chroncle
Ilich Guardiola and Kaytha Coker are featured in Masquerade Theatre's Parade.
Its music and lyrics are by Jason Robert Brown, who won favor for his off-Broadway Songs for a New World and, with Parade, made Broadway's most impressive composing debut in many years.

The show was co-conceived and directed by Harold Prince, who has championed the meaningful musical with such landmark shows as Cabaret, Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd and Kiss of the Spider Woman.

At Parade's premiere in fall 1998, most critics applauded its aspiration and artistry.

"A defining moment in Broadway musical theater," wrote Clive Barnes in the New York Post.

"A milestone," wrote John Simon in New York Magazine. "(It) is handled with intelligence and skill and is superior even as sheer entertainment."

"A striking new musical that illuminates a real American tragedy with genuine artistry," wrote Michael Sommers of Newhouse News Service.

Yet, hampered by the financial woes of co-producer Livent and a lukewarm response in the New York Times (whose Ben Brantley dismissed the work as "a civics lesson"), Parade played only its three-month limited run as part of Lincoln Center Theatre's season, never making the hoped-for transfer to an open-ended run in a commercial Broadway house.

At the end of the season, Uhry and Brown won Tonys for best book and score. A subsequent tour, directed by Prince and conducted by the composer, included Dallas but bypassed Houston.

Now Masquerade Theatre artistic director Phillip Duggins steps up to the plate to stage the Houston premiere of this important work.

"I fell in love with the music as soon as I heard the CD," Duggins says. "Before the show opened on Broadway, and during its run, I'd been hearing a lot about how Jason Robert Brown was the best new composer since Sondheim. I'm convinced now that that's the truth. When I got the script, I loved that, too. It's a great story, told very compellingly. And the music expresses the emotions of the characters so well.

"Good theater should give an audience something to challenge them, something to think about. Parade gives you so much. It's about how we treat people who are different, how easy it is to appeal to bigotry, where the roots of his country are and where we're going as a society.

"And in Leo and Lucille's relationship, it's about the nature of love, how it develops and how we sometimes do not appreciate a person until there's a threat of losing them."

The show's title refers to the Confederate Day Memorial Parade, backdrop of the opening scene and a recurring image in the show -- representing both the community's fierce commitment to its Southern heritage and Frank's displacement. The murder of Mary Phagan occurred on the day of the parade.

The real-life cause célèbre that inspired Parade engrossed the nation in the 1910s and set off reverberations for years to come. The Frank case and attendant anti-Semitic hysteria sparked both the birth of the Anti-Defamation League and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

When it became clear that Frank's conviction relied on dubious witnesses and false testimony, Gov. John Slaton commuted Frank's death sentence, an act of conscience that ended the governor's career. Yet an angry mob later broke into the jail and lynched Frank. It was not until 1986 that the ADL finally obtained a posthumous pardon for the wronged man.

Though Parade's faith in Frank's innocence never wavers, Duggins appreciates that the show does not simplify its characters.

"It doesn't paint the characters as just 'good guys and bad guys.' When we hear the people of Georgia singing the beautiful opening anthem, The Old Red Hills of Home, we know their loyalty to their way of life is genuine. In the funeral scene for Mary Phagan (the murdered girl), the pain of her family and friends is very real. Leo is not shown as a perfect saint, either, since he's distant and prickly and superior. He hasn't really made much effort to fit in there or even to get to know his wife better."

Masquerade is a small professional (but non-Equity) troupe specializing in musicals. Duggins has produced several demanding Sondheim shows, including Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George, but after others already had presented them here. Parade, the company's most noteworthy premiere to date, fits with Duggins' goal of increasing his emphasis on more adventurous works.

"If we're going to be a musical theater house, I want us to do shows that expand the boundaries," he says. "We'll do some standard ones, too; we did Annie for the holiday season. But we're also going to do Songs for a New World and Floyd Collins (Adam Guettel's highly regarded off-Broadway musical) later this year. Musicals are not just about sending people home skipping and singing a happy tune. A show that is moving, that has something to say and leaves you thinking -- that's entertaining, too.

"A lot of bigger companies may feel their audience is interested in only one kind of show. We're interested in a bit of everything. I think the audience can appreciate different types, if they're presented well."

Duggins realizes some Houston theatergoers may wish the city had gotten the tour of Parade and experienced the show in an approximation of the New York original. But he sees advantages in viewers encountering the show in a more intimate mounting.

"It is a very character-driven story," he says. "And in our intimate theater, I think it will be easier to connect with the characters. If you have the actors who can bring it to life, be true to it and not fall short of the script and score, then I think it will work just as well."

Duggins calls his cast "a who's who" of the city's small and midsized theater talent pool.

"Everyone is passionate about this show. There wasn't one person who auditioned who was not dying to do it, and just about everyone already was familiar with the score."

Heading the cast of 25 are Ilich Guardiola (as Leo) and Kaytha Coker (Lucille), with Luther Chakurian, Michael Ross, Terry Jones and Josh Ryan in prominent roles. A five-person chamber ensemble will play Brown's score.

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