Posted Online: April 18, 2012, 11:34 am
There's a new 'Parade' in town
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By Jonathan Turner, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ninety-nine years ago next week, the body of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, who had been strangled, was found in the factory cellar of the National Pencil Company in Atlanta. Her boss, 29-year-old Leo Frank, the last person to see her alive, was convicted of her murder on Aug. 26, 1913.
Bryan Tank and Sara King star in The District Theatre's 'Parade.'
Mr. Frank received the death penalty, which later was commuted to life imprisonment by Georgia's governor. But on Aug. 17, 1915, the Jewish prisoner was kidnapped from his cell by an angry mob of men and hanged from an oak tree in Ms. Phagan's hometown. The well-publicized incident spurred the formation of the Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Jewish bigotry, and a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
Sounds like the perfect tale for a musical, right?
Tristan Tapscott -- who played the role of Leo Frank in Jason Robert Brown's and Alfred Uhry's powerful "Parade" during his senior year at Western Illinois University -- is directing the Quad-Cities' premiere of the bold, daring play. It will open Friday at The District Theatre, Rock Island.
The tragic, true story of a man wrongly accused of murder was first brought to emotional, theatrical life in 1998 by Uhry, the acclaimed playwright ("Driving Miss Daisy"), and Jason Robert Brown, then 28, one of Broadway's most promising young composers ("Songs for a New World").
Mr. Tapscott co-starred in The District Theatre's production of Mr. Brown's "The Last Five Years" last July.
"His stuff is so easily relatable; the lyrics are just gorgeous," he said this week of "Parade," which gets its title from the fact that the date of the 1913 murder was Confederate Memorial Day, honoring those who fought in the Civil War with parades in Georgia.
"Parade" is affecting and relevant today -- not only because it reveals the deep bond between Leo and his wife, Lucille, and the strength of the governor who also defended him, but also because of the issues it raises, Mr. Tapscott said.
"You see racism, anti-Semitism, the mob mentality, corrupt journalism. They still happen today," he said. "I think it's an important piece of history." The show offers a moral lesson about the dangers of prejudice and ignorance, he added.
Leo Frank was convicted of the horrifying crime because "they wanted so badly to blame somebody," Mr. Tapscott said. "They just needed to have somebody convicted, so they could feel better.
"It's not every day that we get to do something that touches on so many important topics. It's something to see -- compared to then, we've evolved, but in some ways, we have not."
"It's a draining show to watch and perform," he added. "It's beautiful, one of my all-time favorites."
Though it didn't play long on Broadway, "Parade" won Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score in 2000.
An Associated Press review of the original production said: "Uhry's book is a spare and unemotional condensation of a complicated saga. Brown's music is just as uncompromising, with few concessions to traditional musical comedy. That's not to say it is inaccessible. There are sprawling melodies here, from ragtime to jazz to serious dramatic numbers that would not be out of place in modern American opera. "
A 2009 New York Times review of a Los Angeles revival said: "This serious-minded, somber show sets to music a true story of such unrelenting grimness that the usual audience-appealing devices of musical theater -- heart-seducing melodies, lively dancing, glowing star turns -- are deployed in modest doses. You don't want to be tapping your toes to a sorry spectacle of justice miscarried, particularly one that ends in a lynching."
While many people seek entertainment as an outlet to escape cares of the world, thought-provoking works like this provide the opposite, Mr. Tapscott said.
"This show is saying there are a lot of problems, maybe we should think about those," he said. "It's so well-crafted, it's just insane. It is a very tragic love story. One of the good things that comes from the entire story is you really need to be mindful of people you love -- appreciate them, because you never know, one day they might be gone."
The District Theatre's production of "Parade" will feature Bryan Tank (Bobby in "Company" and George in "Sunday in the Park With George") as Leo, and Sara Elizabeth King (Mama Morton in "Chicago") as Lucille Frank.
"I enjoy the beautiful score and bravery of the storytelling," Mr. Tank said by email. "Oftentimes, musicals tend toward more readily accessible materials, while 'Parade' dares to tackle this sobering true story in a realistic and riveting manner."
Without addressing guilt or innocence, and in recognition of the state's failure to either protect Leo Frank or bring his killers to justice, he was granted a posthumous pardon in 1986.
"One of the most beautiful things in 'Parade' is the nontraditional love story between Leo and Lucille. The way he truly begins to appreciate her after realizing how much he has taken her for granted is deeply moving to me," Mr. Tank said. "In many ways, nearly all the characters are misjudging someone or something based on unexamined thoughts or other biases."
Both Mr. Tank and Mr. Tapscott are fans of Broadway giant Stephen Sondheim, who actually was asked to write "Parade" by director Hal Prince, but turned it down.
"According to many critics, it was a milestone for musical theater when first presented on Broadway, and it helped position Jason Robert Brown as one of the heirs to Sondheim's throne," Mr. Tank said.
If you go
-- What: "Parade" (musical).
-- When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, plus April 27-28 and May 4-5; 2 p.m. Sunday and April 29.
-- Where: The District Theatre, 1611 2nd Ave., Rock Island.
-- Tickets: $15. Call (309) 235-1654 or send email to email@example.com.
-- Information: districttheatre.com.