Theater on a roll: Bailiwick's back with dark 'Parade'
April 28, 2004

When: To May 29
Where: Bailiwick Repertory, 1229 W. Belmont
Tickets: $25-$30
Call: (773) 883-1090

Over the years, Bailiwick Repertory has built a reputation as an ambitious, clear-sighted organization with a mixed repertoire that consistently captures the attention of theatergoers and critics. In recent seasons, artistic director David Zak has upped the company's profile by producing interesting musicals new to Chicago audiences.

Now Zak is helming the impressive Chicago premiere of "Parade," a 1998 musical by Alfred Uhry ("Driving Miss Daisy") and Jason Robert Brown ("The Last Five Years") that deals with racism in the South -- but with a twist.

African-Americans were the main target of racist hatred in the post-Civil War South, but a strong dislike for Yankees also stirred violence aimed at other minorities. "Parade," a two-time Tony Award winner, is based on one such real-life incident that took place in Atlanta early last century.

The story of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn Jew living in 1913 Atlanta, is essentially one of being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. A superintendent at a pencil factory, he was accused of the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, a worker at the factory. Trying to deter public attention from shameful child labor laws, crooked politicians grasped onto a tradition of racism and anti-Semitism and railroaded the innocent man. Frank was ultimately found guilty and condemned to death. After further investigation, the governor commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, but an angry mob broke into the jail, grabbed Frank and lynched him.

The trial attracted worldwide attention. Considered a national tragedy by many, it pitted North against South, Jews against gentiles and a rising middle-class against the working poor while also raising questions about the workings of the U.S. legal system.

This is heavy material for a musical, but Uhry and Brown handle it with dignity and intelligence. In the best American musical tradition ("Show Boat," "Ragtime"), Brown's songs are a captivating mix of hymns, folk, blues, jazz and ragtime. Rarely do such songs send a shiver down the spine as these do. The lyrics reveal the explosive depths of a deep-seated racism set deep in the American psyche. It is truly an unsettling experience, one not often felt in musical theater.

"Parade" is an ambitious project for Bailiwick; the stage is just big enough to house the 30-member ensemble. Director Zak wisely pulls back from the spectacle aspect of the musical and instead concentrates on the history lesson  and the compelling love story.

Backed by a six-piece band overseen by musical director Alan Bukowiecki, the ensemble performs diligent and touching versions of Brown's emotional songs. A few moments of comic relief stealthily lighten things up.

The musical is framed by Atlanta's Confederate Memorial Day parade. It is on this day that Mary Phagan is found murdered and suspicion quickly falls on Frank. The word "Jew" is spat out like a profanity. This is a society that casts a doubtful eye on anyone who doesn't fit into its way of doing things.

Leo admits that living in Atlanta is like "living in a foreign land"; his wife admonishes him for saying "shalom" instead of "howdy." His biggest crime is a fastidious and neurotic nature that gives him an air of cold aloofness, something this Southern society casts a suspicious eye on.

As played by the talented Nicholas Foster, Leo is a cautious man who simply can't believe anything like this could happen to a forthright citizen who has always taken the right and proper path.

Lucille Frank (a marvelous portrayal by Amy Arbizzani) comes alive in the musical's second half as she successfully attempts to convince the governor to reexamine the evidence in her husband's case. It is here that we begin to see Lucille's transformation from a submissive wife into a strong, resilient woman who will fight to the end for her husband.

In the face of death, the Franks' personal relationship also comes alive as it moves from a staid partnership to one that is rich with love and passion. Rising to her husband's defense, Arbizzani delivers the stirring "You Don't Know This Man." Later, hope becomes palpable in two touching and heartfelt duets -- "This Is Not Over Yet" and "All the Wasted Time" -- performed by the doomed couple.

In solos, duets, trios and ensembles, Brown's music is as important to the storytelling as Uhry's book. Most potent is the disturbing trial segment, in which a series of songs by the witnesses for the prosecution seal Frank's doom.

The ensemble shifts from one scene to the next with ease. In a vaudeville-like number, Sean Reid is a standout as a drunken reporter who has stumbled on the story that could make his career. Other notables are Jamie Axtell as the hard-bitten prosecuting attorney; Randolph Johnson as a sturdy nightwatchman; Brian Daugherty as Mary's accusatory beau, and Amber Robbin as a sweet, playful Mary Phagan.

With its look at the dark undercurrent of racism, "Parade" does not sit lightly on the mind. This is tough material that takes a certain nerve to produce. Zak and company give it just the right touch, proving that musical theater can tell a challenging story with grace and heart.

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