PARADE
Directed & Choreographed by Karla Kash
StageWest Theatre Co
Des Moines, IA


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REVIEWS

 

Masterfully presented musical packs a memorable punch

 

By John Busbee, The Cultural Buzz

 

There comes a time when a relatively new theatre company sheds the label “emerging” or “new” and makes a creative statement that shows it stands with any and all of a community’s creative producers. “Parade” makes such a statement. StageWest Theatre Company’s latest offering boldly and successfully establishes the seeming oxymoron: an epic musical in the Stoner Theater space. “Parade” is a legacy-proving milestone bringing a production value rivaling any Iowa theatre company’s best, including touring productions. “Parade” is a show which must be seen, or forever regretfully missed.“

 

Parade,” book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, sweeps us back almost one hundred years to a regrettable time in American history. The gruesome rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year old pencil factory laborer, in Marietta, Georgia, becomes the ignition point for a firestorm of prejudice, injustice and hatred. The factory’s manager, Leo Frank, is a Yankee Jew from Brooklyn, an unwanted intrusion into the culture of the South. Due more to manipulation by a profit-seeking press than the judicial process, Frank is sentenced to death for this murder. This musical, while a dramatization of the facts, closely and accurately follows this catalytic story which brought many landmark changes to journalistic ethics, the founding of the Anti-Defamation League, and even the unfortunate resurrection of a Ku Klux Klan sect.

 

Interestingly, Stephen Sondheim was first offered the musical creative role for this project, but turned it down. The music still seems infused with Sondheim-esque influences, however, complete with layered song stylings, complex lyrics and wide variance in musical styles. Brown’s captivating score is superb.

 

With appealing clarity, Andrew Ryker wraps himself in a completely believable Frank. From his workaholic, fish-out-of-water cultural outsider place, delivered brilliantly in “How Can I Call this Home” where he laments, “That being Southern’s not just being in the South,” Ryker gives one of this show’s strongest performances. One magical moment is during the trial, in a fantasy sequence number “The Factory Girls/Come Up to My Office,” when Frank briefly, demonically shifts to the preying monster he’s unjustly being portrayed. Other highlights include duets with Frank’s wife, Lucille (Lauren Shun).

 

Ryker is ably matched by many other strong performances. As Leo’s wife, Shun mesmerizes with a vocal power and poise as she shares the resolve of a Southern belle wife devoted to her husband. Lauren Knutson brings a vulnerable innocence coupled with a firm voice to her Mary Phagan in recurring appearances long after her Act One death. Douglas Cochrane delivers a chilling lullaby over the open grave of Mary Phagan, foreshadowing his newspaper’s influence of the pending trial. Like a refreshing tonic, Colin Morgan imbues his multiple characters with ebullient energy, from his debauched newsman, Britt Craig, to his ultimately crusading Governor Slaton. Likewise, as both the governor’s wife and Mary Phagan’s mother, Sarah Hinzman brings subtle yet distinct differences to these roles through her strong stage presence and heartfelt singing. Ben Raanan, as the unctuously evil prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, provides more than enough power and presence to serve as the primary antagonist.

 

Two audience favorites are theatre veterans Aaron Smith and Casey Gradischnig. As Newt Lee, who should have been the prime suspect and not the primary witness against Frank, and other characters, Smith brings his soul-touching singing coupled with an occasional dark persona to his stage work. Gradischnig delights as the Old Confederate Soldier and Judge Roan, capturing all the skewed Southern pride with poised authority and a bold, textured voice.

 

The rest of the ensemble similarly enhances this show, with each cast member delivering key highlight moments, while working together with fluid efficiency. Even with most of the cast serving in multiple roles, the flow and energy of “Parade” is continuous and irresistible.

 

“Parade” is richly filled with engaging songs, staging and ensemble work, thanks to the expertise of Director/Choreographer Karla Kash. Through the design wonder of Eleanor Kahn’s open, versatile and evocative setting, the audience is quickly transported through a range of locations, carried by the moody lighting design of Ian King, Kash excels at filling the space with eye-catching production numbers, driven by talented Musical Director Ben Hagen’s exceptional eight-piece orchestra. One of Kash’s more visceral numbers is the brooding chain gang scene and number, “Feel the Rain Fall” – unforgettable.

 

Occasionally inconsistent Southern dialects, some incongruous costuming, and minor technical execution are quickly forgiven in the overall context of this exceptional production. These small flaws only serve to remind the audience of the superb caliber of talent available in our community, in a memorable show surely to serve as a future high point of theatrical excellence. When such talent is blended with a masterful production team into the established creative excellence of StageWest, the results are gratifying and delectably sublime. So, don’t let the parade pass you by, and get your tickets while they last. “Parade” runs through January 29.

 

 

 ’Parade’ cast guilty of superb performance

 

By Margaret Ludington, Special to the Register

 

On the count of having a superb cast with outstanding vocal skills, the jury finds the defendant, StageWest’s production, “Parade,” guilty.

On the count of having excellent set design, costuming, lighting and sound, the jury finds the defendant guilty.

On the count of providing an intense, emotion-packed evening of live theater that will have audiences talking about the show for years, the jury finds the defendant guilty.

 

I haven’t experienced such a visceral reaction to a production since my response to hearing the rotor before the helicopter lands on stage in “Miss Saigon.”

 

“Parade,” book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, tells the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish pencil factory manager wrongly convicted of raping and murdering 14-year-old factory employee Mary Phagan in 1913. The action takes place in Atlanta, Ga., but knowing what we do today about the rush to judgment leading to wrongful convictions in this country, it’s an American story.

 

The sterling quality of the cast creates the backbone of the StageWest production. In a venue as small as the Civic Center’s Stoner Theatre with all but a few words of dialogue sung and all but three of the 18-member cast doing double, triple and even quadruple duty in the ensemble, no one hides on the fringes.

 

Andrew Ryker gives a performance of a lifetime as Leo Frank. He makes the nerdy, hand-wringing, hyper-conscientious factory supervisor a character worthy of the audience’s sympathy.

Lauren Shun’s performance as Frank’s wife, Lucille, blossoms from mousy bystander ready to run away from the scandal into a true steel magnolia, prodding the governor to reinvestigate Leo’s case and charming her way into the prison farm where Leo is incarcerated.

 

The rest of the cast builds on Ryker and Shun’s foundation, taking the audience through a range of emotions as the plot travels from bantering adolescent flirtation between the soon-to-be murder victim Phagan (Lauren Knutson) and her friend Frankie Epps (Kent Reynolds) to a brothel where the ambitious reporter Britt Craig (Colin Morgan) cavorts with the ladies to Little Mary’s graveside with her grieving mother (Sarah Hinzman) to the courtroom where the state’s attorney Hugh Dorsey (Ben Raanan) directs the witnesses like a conductor leading an orchestra to the prison, the governor’s mansion and, finally, to Leo’s lynching.

 

This is powerful stuff. Brown’s 34 musical numbers, ably performed by the musically talented and well trained cast, bring the audience along. The songs that stood out as most evocative included Frankie and Mary’s “The Picture Show”; “There Is a Fountain” sung at the funeral; Mrs. Phagan’s testimony, “My Child Will Forgive Me”; Governor Slaten’s ball, “Pretty Music”; Jim Conley (Aaron Smith) and the chain gang’s “Blues: It Feels Like Rain”; and Leo’s final prayer, “Sh’ma,” sung in Hebrew.

 

I admit to a preference for lighter theatrical fare as a counterweight to the drama and grief of everyday life. But when a story this compelling and ably performed comes along, it must be seen.

 

I have two caveats. First, the show is long. The first act was more than an hour and a half and, with intermission, the entire performance ran close to three hours. Those who don’t like to stay up late might choose a Sunday afternoon.

 

My second is that this isn’t family fare. If this were a movie, I’d rate it R and limit it to high school and up.

 

Margaret Ludington is a freelancer reviewer and writer for the Altoona Herald-Index.

 

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