Philadelphia Weekly, April 14, 2004

Injustice Served
Based on a true story, Villanova's production of Parade shows the fatal consequences of ignorance and bigotry.

Question: What do the White Stripes, Radiohead, Johann Sebastian Bach, Barbra Streisand and composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown have in common?

Answer: Their albums are currently the top five sellers in Villanova on .

If you're wondering who Jason Robert Brown is and what he's doing in such elite company, hustle over to Vasey Hall on the Villanova University campus, where Brown's spectacular musical Parade is playing in an unforgettable production from Villanova Theatres.

Even better than the Philadelphia Theatre Company's marvelous production of Brown's The Last Five Years , which captured last year's Barrymore for outstanding musical, Villanova's Parade is like a spiritual stun gun that awakens our humanity by displaying man's darkest impulses.

Smartly adapted by librettist Alfred Uhry from real events, Parade tells the story of Leo Frank (Josh Sauerman in an intelligent portrayal), a Jewish Yankee businessman accused of murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan in his Atlanta pencil factory. It doesn't matter that Frank is innocent of the murder--his real crime isn't homicide. Rather, it's what Frank represents.

In post-Civil War Georgia, "The Old Red Hills of Home" ( Parade 's extraordinary opening number, superbly sung here by Larry Cox Jr.) have become blackened by the soot of the Yankee-owned factories, where the children of Atlanta toil under slave-like conditions. And Frank--a persnickety little man who detests his redneck neighbors--is the perfect scapegoat for the perceived economic rape of Georgia's land and children by Northerners.

But Parade is far more than an involving historical drama with a glorious book and score. At its heart is the relationship between Frank and his wife Lucille (the excellent Nina Donze). Their love affair blossoms as their tragedy deepens.

In another production, this mix of drama and romance would be enough to keep us happily entertained, but under Peter M. Donohue's astonishing direction, Villanova's production is much, much more.

Creatively staged from the play's opening Memorial Day parade to the memorable  courtroom scene in which Donohue presents both sides of the case by having the cast rotate themselves and the props 180 degrees, the production uses the limitations of both the small space and the youthful cast to its advantage.

Dirk Durossette's two-tiered set emphatically represents the ravaged South with nothing more than two raised porches, a tree and a row of factory windows. Jerold R. Forsyth's atmospheric lighting turns prison cells into picnic  areas, and Janus Stefanowicz's authentic costumes are superbly detailed.

But it's the student cast that makes Parade so poignant. Passionate, innocent and at times frighteningly barbaric, André N. Jones, Melissa Dryslewski and Jason J. Michael are terrific in supporting roles, and newcomer Michael Barr's intensely mournful rendition of "It Don't Make Sense" is emotionally staggering.

With all the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ , it's perhaps fitting that Villanova, an Augustinian institution, has given us a production that puts the Easter holiday in proper perspective. As a religiously intolerant mob screams for Frank's death, one can't help but recall the murder of another Jewish man on an ancient hillside in Calvary--and how love can bloom from such intense hatred.

Parade Through April 25. $18-$22. Vasey Hall, Villanova University, Lancaster and Ithan aves., Villanova. 610.519.7474.

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