The 5th Avenue deserves major kudos for bringing in the challenging musical drama Parade as its 2000-'01 season opener. We can be grateful that the limited tour of the Tony Award-winning, though short-lived, musical, with book by Alfred Uhry, and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (doubling as the enthusiastic musical director of the production), arrived in the Pacific Northwest at all, given its dark subject matter.
Brown's score for Parade is one of the most deservedly honored in recent Broadway seasons, a bit Sondheim-influenced naturally, but then that's probably part of what excited Hal Prince about the project. Uhry's book, though integrated well with Brown's score, falls short of the excellence of his nonmusical Driving Miss Daisy, or even The Last Night of Ballyhoo. But given the difficult nature of retelling the 1913 Atlanta murder trial of transplanted Jewish New Yorker Leo Frank for the murder of Mary Phagan, his successful appeal process, and ultimate lynching, the collaborators can be congratulated for getting the show so right, and one doesn't feel the need to dwell on its shortcomings. Ghostly images from Prince musicals past—Evita, Sweeney Todd, and Kiss of the Spider Woman in particular—are all recalled in spots, yet Parade has its own identity, and like all his best shows manages to be entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time.
After the impressive "Old Red Hills of Home" opening, Parade moves a bit slowly as it sets up the Memorial Day when the tragic murder of little Mary Phagan took place. But from the moment Leo Frank's staunch and increasingly supportive wife, Lucille, portrayed by the luminous Andrea Burns, sings Brown's powerful "You Don't Know This Man," through the deftly staged trial and conviction sequence, the show gains momentum. The second act, when Lucille's campaign to prove Leo's innocence comes heartbreakingly close to fruition before the tragic dénouement, is musical-theatre storytelling at its finest. Brown's soaring, romantic love duet for Leo and Lucille, "All the Wasted Time," is the kind of heart-wrenching ballad that made Broadway great.
David Pittu is funny, edgy, and even at times unlikable as Leo Frank, creating a full-bodied portrait of a man whose innocence we may believe in, despite his own character flaws. Jewish Southern belles are a specialty of author Uhry, and Burns knows how to take Lucille on her personal journey from flighty wife to championing lifemate. Keith Byron Kirk is chilling and vocally remarkable as Jim Conley, the prosecution's most damning witness. Other worthy performances include Kristen Bowden's brief but haunting appearance as Mary Phagan, Adinah Alexander as her guilt-ridden Mother, Rick Hilsabeck as Georgia Gov. Hugh Slaton, who becomes convinced of Frank's innocence, and Peter Samuels as rabble-rousing reporter Hugh Dorsey.
Parade's suggestive set by Riccardo Hernandez places an omnipresent hanging tree front and center, an unnecessary reminder of what was yet to come, but Judith Dolan's handsome period costumes and Howell Binkley's haunting lighting design cannot be faulted. Patricia Birch's choreography is attuned to Prince's direction admirably and never breaks into a dance for showstopper's sake. The sound quality on opening night unfortunately ranged from murky to middling, but Brown's music carried the day even when some of his lyrics were muddied.
Jar Jars, but Doesn't Jell
Cheryl L. West's Jar the Floor, a multigenerational tale of four generations of African-American women, seems perfectly at home in Seattle Repertory Theatre's intimate Leo K. space. The play is a sort of African-American Steel Magnolias, and director Gil McCauley helps his cast strike an admirable balance of steely resolve and homespun humor. West observes well the dynamics among the women in one family who gather for the venerable and intermittently senile MaDear's 90th birthday. Her daughter Lola is a goodtime gal who closed her eyes to the sexual abuse her longtime beau visited upon her daughter MayDee. MayDee became an overachieving academician who found precious little time to focus on providing for her daughter Vennie's personal needs, while focusing on giving her the best things money could buy, leaving Vennie to become a wild-child college drop-out, with a Caucasian cancer-survivor girlfriend in tow to MaDear's birthday bash.
West's women are not all equally well observed, especially not breast cancer-survivor Raisa, whose dialogue rarely rings true, but at its best the play is touchingly funny and angst inducing at the same time, and a great vehicle for an impressive cast.
Marilyn Coleman is the embodiment of the bent but unbowed senior citizen as MaDear. Her behavior provokes laughter, anger, and tears, and anyone dealing with a failing elder relative will see what a perfectly realized performance this is. Emily Yancy as Lola is her equal in the play's other showiest role. Yancy handles some of the play's rawest dialogue with sublime artistry, and though she has many of its funniest lines, she underscores the character's pain with great subtlety. Sharon Washington strikes the right chord of chilly self-absorption as MayDee, and Terrilynn Towns is brash and sassy as her alienated daughter Vennie. Alexis Chamow does what she can with Raisa, wading through some terrible if well-intended dialogue concerning her health and a gooey speech about wanting to travel abroad. Yet when Chamow's and Coleman's characters connect, the actors create some of the production's loveliest small moments.
Still Oddly Funny
One need not go too deeply into the plotting of The Odd Couple, just opened at A Contemporary Theatre, for anyone who has not seen the play, film, or TV version of Neil Simon's classic about battling mismatched roommates has clearly been living in a bomb shelter somewhere since 1965. ACT wisely employed comedy specialist Jeff Steitzer to direct, and Steitzer found a cast that is as comfortable with Simon's one-liners as it can be.
John Procaccino scores a solid triple, maybe even a homerun, with his hangdog expressions as the ultimate slob—sportswriter Oscar Madison. The scene in which he sets out to trash his apartment with garbage to piss off roommate Felix is a true comedic dazzler. R. Hamilton Wright takes a while to totally find a comfort level with the irritatingly clean and nit-picky Felix Unger, but he plays well off Procaccino, finds a great honking sound for Felix's allergy problem, and really takes off once he has the play's flighty Pigeon sisters to play off. Speaking of those sisters, Liz McCarthy and Katie Forgette as Cecily and Gwendolyn Pigeon are the funniest stage duo this writer has seen in many a moon. They are so deftly comedic that one almost wishes ACT had opted to do the female version of The Odd Couple to see what they'd have done as Florence and Olive. Steitzer rounds out the cast with four of Seattle's most seasoned character men, Allen Galli, Peter Silbert, Mark Chamberlain, and Geoffrey Alm as the couple's poker cronies, and they deliver the goods in spades. Simon may have written richer, deeper comedies after The Odd Couple, but never one that, in the right hands as it is at ACT, still provokes such gales of laughter from an audience. BSW