It's a long stretch from the signature roles played so well by Billy Ensley in recent years -- Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, the Emcee in Cabaret, and Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch -- to the part of Leo Frank, the hero/victim of Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry's Parade. The ethos and energy level of the unassuming pencil-factory supervisor are far removed from Ensley's outré flamboyance. So is Brown's music, devoid of rock or raunch. The gulf is so wide that Ensley, in the Charlotte, N.C., premiere of this uniquely probing musical, has a prodigious leap to make, as does an audience familiar with his previous work.
Unfortunately, the issue was clouded on opening night at Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre's new home, the stately Dale F. Halton Theater. A computerized ticketing foul-up was merely a prelude to the evening's tech problems -- inflicted by a wayward sound system and compounded in the sound booth. Ensley, just a smidge undermiked all night, handled the blizzard of distractions with admirable aplomb. Equally imperturbable was the 24-piece orchestra under the sure baton of Drina Keen, though it must have broken her heart to watch some of the vocalists being drowned out by the music.
Thanks to the professionals on stage and in the pit, the most scandalous aspects of Frank's true-life prosecution in the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan come through with jaw-dropping clarity, surmounting the technical glitches. The case brought by prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, unctuously portrayed by Ron Aldridge, is startling in its flimsiness, riddled with coached and suborned testimony from a caravan of dimwits and lowlifes.
Flimsier still is the defense offered by Frank's counsel, Luther Rosser, blubbery and blustery in James Duke's fine performance. Frank is further assailed by the rabid emotionalism of Phagan's would-be boyfriend, Frankie Epps (a fine debut for Matthew Keffer); the pious oratory of fundamentalist preacher Tom Watson (Carey Kugler); and the implacable prejudice of an old Confederate soldier, who organizes a lynch mob when Frank's death sentence is commuted to life in prison. The malevolence of the gray-coated gargoyle reaches mythic proportions in James K. Flynn's ornery, one-legged rendition, while Patrick Ratchford gives Gov. Slaton the slick courtliness of a plantation owner with his rich baritone voice and matinee-idol looks.
Laudably, the book doesn't focus relentlessly on the horrifying miscarriage of justice inflicted upon Frank by xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Uhry veers away long enough to tell an uplifting story of the personal growth of both Frank and his wife, Lucille, during their terrible ordeal. Frank grows paradoxically more optimistic, independent, and strong as things continue to go wrong during his trial and appeals, while also gaining a more realistic appreciation of his wife's strengths and capabilities. And rightly so, as her crusading eventually leads to his clemency.
It was the intimate side of the story that suffered most under the deluge of technical difficulties. Katherine Lauer makes a solid debut as Lucille, ably tracing her development from shy, retiring helpmate to steely crusader. Without the sonic dropouts that bedeviled her, Lauer's debut would have been even more auspicious.
Parade ran June 23-July 1 at Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre in Charlotte, N.C.