WSU's  `Parade' worthy of fanfare

by Terry Morris
Dayton Daily News
Saturday, November 10, 2001

FAIRBORN--Parade recites an unhappy chapter of American history, but Wright State University Theatre's production of it deserves a fanfare.

Directed by Joe Deer, it's a powerful effort from the branches atop the huge tree that dominates designer Don David's set to conductor Joseph Bates' orchestra in the pit, which expressed the passion, depth and nuance in Tony Award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown's score on opening night Thursday.

The two-act play that ran only briefly on Broadway is based on a true and all-too-familiar story.

Leo Frank, a Jew from Brooklyn who's running a pencil factory in Atlanta in 1913, is charged with the murder of 13-year-old worker Mary Phagan. She was found dead after coming to the nearly deserted factory to collect her week's pay of $1.20 from him while the rest of white Atlanta attended the annual Confederate Memorial Day parade.

Leo didn't do it, but he was an easy target at the time.

Act 1 wastes no time in exposition, racing to the crime and hurtling to the railroaded conviction while simultaneously weaving in subplots and painting the backdrop of life in the post-Civil War South.

Rising from the pit to a steeper grade at the rear, where the progress of parade marchers below is visible only by the flags they wave, the stage is like a chunk carved out of Georgia clay. It's set against a dramatic sky which, like the texture on the looming tree, lighting designer Matthew P. Benjamin exploits to suggest a range of moods.

Although the tale of bigots who demand and get "justice" is predictable, Parade sweeps us along to a tragic, but surprisingly ennobling conclusion that doesn't resort to victimizing Mary or vilifying the South yet again.

Leo's place as the sore thumb in that culture is amplified by the staging. Sometimes the world stops around him in freeze frame. Sometimes he's isolated from events that swirl around him, most tellingly in the celebratory cakewalk that follows his conviction.

There's a cast of 36, and this production's most powerful scenes are generally the multi-layered ones with large groups. That advantage echoes in Brown's marvelous score, which he personally imparted to students during a weekend visit last month. He threads subtle and obvious flavors of time and place into his compositions the way Charles Ives salted his music with references to New England almost a century ago.

The songs, with titles like That's What He Said, I Am Trying to Remember and This Is Not Over Yet, flow in and out of the book by Alfred Uhry, especially in Act 1. As serious as Parade is, it does resort to some musical theater conventions in Act 2.

Almost the entire play is required for student actor Ian Rhodes to define the central character of Leo Frank, which is precisely how the role is written. Parade is about how and why this happens to him more than it's about him. But we definitely know what he's made of by the time he sings All the Wasted Time with wife Lucille late in Act 2 as they share a picnic in his prison cell. Not long afterwards, a lynch mob drags him away.

The role of Lucille is acted and sung exceptionally well by Julie Marie Eberhart, whose portrayal of loyal spouse and brave woman is clear to us, if not Leo, from the beginning. He finally sees that light.

Others in this strong cast include: Patrick Bratton as black janitor and chain-gang leader Jim Conley, whose false testimony helps convict Leo; Bradford R. Lund as prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, Kevin Leary as Gov. Slaton, Lauren Finnan as Mary Phagan, Damon Gravina as newshound Britt Craig, Andrea Auten as Mrs. Phagan, Samantha Desiree Servais as Sally Slaton, Paul Maag as obsessed fundamentalist publisher Tom Watson, and Kasey Nusbickel as factory girl Iola.

A local premiere and national college co-premiere, this is the kind of production Wright State envisioned when it instituted a musical-theater emphasis five years ago to stand apart from the herd of undergraduate acting programs. Future efforts may well be measured against it.

Contact Terry Morris at 225-2377 or by e-mail at

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