Would it be possible to get a cast recording of the District Theatre’s Parade? Because the production is so well-sung by its cast members, I wouldn’t mind listening to them perform composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown’s songs over and over again. The solos are stirring, as characters sing about their relationships and roles in a Georgia town gripped by the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl. But some of the ensemble numbers gave me goosebumps during Saturday’s performance – particularly the hauntingly sad “Funeral Sequence: There Is a Fountain / It Don’t Make Sense,” performed as the townsfolk remember the young lady whose body was found in the basement of a local pencil factory.
Directed by Tristan Tapscott (who also portrays Hugh Dorsey, the vile, loathsome prosecutor in the girl’s murder trial), the production has a natural feel to it and doesn't seem overproduced. Tapscott is apparently aware of just how powerful playwright Alfred Uhry’s book and Brown’s music and lyrics are, and knows that the musical doesn't require extensive embellishment to strengthen its emotional impact. But his production still seems carefully thought out, and the material presented in a respectful manner worthy of the piece. Tapscott makes a particularly smart choice in staging the “Interrogation Sequence,” sitting Ezekiel Davis’ Newt Lee – the night watchman who discovered Mary’s body – in a chair, with his hands clasped together and his head down the entire song. We never see his face, just the top of his head. And viewing this man perhaps in an act of prayer, with fear resonating in his rich, moving vocals, is heartrending for the clear way it exemplifies Newt’s sense that despite his innocence, he’s in a desperate situation, with little hope of escaping punishment.
While the plot centers on Mary (played with gentle grace by Kelly Lohrenz), Leo Frank is actually the central character. And portraying this Jewish man who runs the factory in which Mary’s body was discovered, Bryan Tank is in top form as an actor, showcasing a wide range of emotions and a nuanced characterization. After being charged with the crime, and being held in jail awaiting his trial, Tank manages to shade his Leo with layers of anger, condescension, intelligence, and self-importance, adding undertones of desperation and anxiety that are just barely discernible. While I’ve been impressed with Tank’s work in the past – most notably his turn(s) as the lead in Quad City Music Guild’s 2004 Jekyll & Hyde – this single scene features unquestionably the best, most in-depth acting I’ve yet seen from him.
Parade also features perhaps the most subtle performance I’ve seen from Sara King, who plays Leo’s wife Lucille. Often the object of Leo’s condescension, Lucille has a deflated meekness about her but is also a woman of determination, pressing forward despite her husband’s insistence that she not make any effort toward clearing his name. King appears haggard and melancholy throughout the production, with hints of courage and doubt occasionally peeking through, and as much as I love to hear her belt out big, brassy numbers, it’s just as pleasing to listen to King sing her solos here so delicately, with a beautiful sadness on almost every note.
On the opposite end of the emotional scale, Davis exudes bravado in his second (and most prominent) of three roles: Jim Conley, the factory’s janitor and star witness at Leo’s trial. Davis exhibits playful self-certainty, as his Jim lies on the stand about his part in Leo’s alleged crime, claiming he carried Mary’s body to the basement to help cover up her murder. With a beaming smile and sparkle in his eyes, Davis’ confidence is backed by his dazzling singing, as he vocally dances his way through Brown’s material.
Tank, King, and Davis are just three members of Parade's cast of 23 exceptionally capable actors, and Tapscott manages to get them all into the District Theatre's intimate performance space without the show feeling cramped. They’re well-placed on set designer Susan Holgersson’s and Charles T. Knudsen’s appropriately minimalist, yet clearly defined, playing areas, which include Lucille’s antique-filled home office, Leo’s sterile work office, and a raised platform that serves as the judge’s bench, the interrogation room, the town square, and other locales. Yet this is a production that feels bigger than the space in which it’s played due to its emotional grandness, rather than for the size of the cast or sets.
The District Theatre’s Parade made quite an impact on me, with the power of Uhry’s and Brown’s racially charged musical still occupying my mind days after witnessing it. I hesitate to call this production perfect, as that’s quite lofty praise. But the District Theatre’s presentation of this show is so good that I also don’t see much room for improvement. Bravo, District Theatre. Bravo.
Parade runs at the District Theatre (1611 Second Avenue, Rock Island) through May 5, and tickets and information are available by calling (309)235-1654 or visiting DistrictTheatre.com.