Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Reverend's Reviews: A Riveting Parade

The Jason Robert Brown-Alfred Uhry collaboration Parade, which had a brief run on Broadway in 1998, is a true contemporary musical classic. That it hasn't yet been recognized as such by the general public is unfortunate, but the Center Theatre Group's riveting production playing now through November 15 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles may change things.

The show has a widely-perceived deficit against it in that it isn't a work of splashy, feel-good spectacle. Inspired by the 1915 lynching of a Jewish man in Georgia, Leo Frank, who was accused of killing a teenage girl and the legal-political circus leading up to it, it's hard-hitting stuff. But Parade is brilliantly conceived and, under the care of the LA production's director-choreographer Rob Ashford, it is not only moving but ultimately redemptive.

A great cast headed by out actor T.R. Knight, late of Grey's Anatomy, certainly helps. It includes Broadway vets Davis Gaines (who has played the title role in The Phantom of the Opera more than 2,000 times) and Charlotte d'Amboise, who is initially unrecognizable — to her credit — as Mrs. Phagan, mother of the murdered girl, Mary. Recent Tony winner Christian Hoff, who originated the role of Tommy DeVito in Jersey Boys, also stars.

Knight's performance is a revelation. He reportedly hasn't done a musical since he played a minor role in a high-school production of Camelot, yet he displays fine song-and-dance chops. Knight really hit his stride opening night during the courtroom number "Come Up to My Office," and his final duet with Lara Pulver, who plays Frank's wife Lucille, is heart wrenching.

Speaking of Pulver, the British actress is both musically and dramatically exceptional. What's more, her Southern accent — often mangled by Brits (just listen to the London cast recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down the Wind if you don't believe me) — sounds authentic.

Ashford's staging on the multi-level set is fine. Although Parade isn't a dance-heavy show, Ashford mines every opportunity for it. Particularly demanding and impressive are the paces he puts the cast (especially Michael Berresse, who plays Georgia's then-Governor, John Slaton) through during Act 2's "Pretty Music." Ashford knows this material well, having co-choreographed the original Broadway production, which was directed by Harold Prince.

More local/regional performances of Parade have been popping up in recent years as theatre companies discover it. I encourage, and would love to require, everyone to seek out a production in your vicinity and see it. If you're in the greater LA area, though, be sure to catch Center Theatre Group's Parade before it passes by.

For more information or tickets, please visit Center Theatre Group's website. And click here for an Advocate interview with T.R. Knight.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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