With its first song, a rousing Confederate Memorial Day hymnal about "The Old Red Hills" of Georgia, "Parade" declares itself a beautiful show about ugly subjects.
Like almost every presentational aspect of the second show of the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival's season, the song itself is pristine. The vocals are mighty, the stage direction compelling. But it's hard to look away from the stars and bars held aloft in the chorus' hands. It's hard to ignore the implications of the oppressive heritage their soaring voices romanticize.
The ugliness extends from the flags to the people holding them as "Parade" continues, telling the true 1913 story of Jewish factory owner Leo Frank's frame-up for raping and murdering a girl in his employ. Through that case, Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown's Tony Award winner peers beyond the black and white of Southern culture and into what they portray as its viciously insular heart. As Leo observes, "I didn't understand that being Southern's not just being in the South." (Audiences in central New York, where the Confederate flag is all too commonly flown, can surely relate.)
But first, the beautiful: As Uhry and Brown have said of their 1998 work, the marriage between Leo (Aaron Galligan-Stierle) and Lucille Frank (Kristin Wetherington) is its other heart. And it's as inspiring as the Southern mob's is hideous. As their characters' love swells resisting injustice together, Galligan-Stierle and Wetherington captivate. Whether he's frantically showing suspicious policemen his bloodless hands or she's erupting into shouted high notes that Leo shouldn't "Do it Alone," the lead duo finds a moving chemistry if only through shared dramatic and vocal excellence.
What's also beautiful about the festival's "Parade" isn't so much the excellence of the rest of the cast, but the consistent excellence of so large a cast. Though it all but lacks dance choreography, Uhry and Brown's musical is generous with its vocal spotlight. And every performer at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse seizes it with the conviction and talent of a marquee name: Jamison Stern's corrupt prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, young Brendan Jacob Smith's vengeful Frankie Epps, Fergie L. Philippe's slick Jim Conley, Erin Katzker's mournful Ms. Phagan and every other name on the playbill.
AUBURN — As it prepares to present "Parade," the second show of its 2017 season, the Finger …
The cast is a force together, too. Show director and festival Producing Artistic Director Brett Smock brilliantly arranges his ensemble about designer Czerton Lim's stage, a spiderweb of stairs and platforms with Leo often occupying its vulnerable middle. And Musical Director Jeff Theiss and his orchestra skillfully galvanize the songs with Southern battlefield rhythms and stirring strings.
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"Parade's" politics, however, are more elusive. It certainly gives Leo's arrest and trial serious treatment, all but ceasing the jokes and applause breaks of the show's first 20 minutes. And with second act opener "A Rumblin' and a Rollin'," performed by Crystal Sha'nae and Banji Aborisade's servant characters, the show smartly calibrates its vision of 1913 America so as not to appear delusionally post-racial: "The local hotels wouldn't be so packed if a little black girl had gotten attacked." The song makes explicit the Southern racism that's conspicuously absent from the first act, aside from Dorsey allegedly choosing to prosecute Leo instead of black watchman Newt Lee (Marcus Jordan) because the white factory owner's life was worth more to the mobs crying for justice.
Still, it's hard to locate precisely what "Parade" is trying to say outside of its love story between the Franks. Though Uhry and Brown have said they believe in Leo's innocence, their show is not at all concerned with who's guilty. It points no fingers toward Philippe's Conley, whom some believe was the true culprit, and instead shines a sympathetic light on his perpetual return to the chain gang.
Not speculating on such a contentious case would be unnoteworthy if not for some of Uhry and Brown's more curious choices in "Parade" — the ones that suggest they are, indeed, trying to say something. (And that's to say nothing of the political minefield that is staging a musical in 2017 with reverently waved Confederate flags and an immoral, scandalmongering press.)
One choice is "Come Up to My Office," a boppy number that sees Galligan-Stierle spring from Leo's hunkered posture and play the pedophile described in the hauntingly sung testimony of factory girls Madeleine VanRiper, Emma DeGroff and Adeline Whitener. It serves no clear purpose aside from creeping out the audience and bludgeoning them with the fact Dorsey coached his witnesses.
Another curious choice is the show's final number: a reprise of "The Old Red Hills of Home." It not only valorizes a character who just orchestrated maybe the most horrific act in "Parade," it subjugates Leo's story to the culture that allowed it to happen. But is the reprise really another love letter to the South? Or does it anticipate the audience's revulsion and use that to provoke criticism of our tendency to paper over our worst actions in the name of patriotism? As the festival's production of "Parade" shows, sometimes beauty is the only way to see the ugly.
Gallery: The Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival presents 'Parade'
The Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival continues its 2017 season with "Parade" at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse. Here are a few scenes from the show, which continues through July 25 at the playhouse, Emerson Park, Owasco. Tickets are $28 to $58. For more information, visit fingerlakesmtf.com or call (315) 255-1785.