Jason Robert Brown

Getting ready for a glorious rained-on ‘Parade’

At tech rehearsal for a musical about an infamous murder case, a few jokes fly amid the carnage of violence and a railroaded defendant

The Jason Robert Brown/Alfred Uhry musical Parade tells the story of an infamous murder case. And for the moment, everyone can tell that Leo Frank is guilty.

It’s technical rehearsal for Staged! musical theater company’s production in the Brunish Theatre – opening night is Saturday, September 20 –  and little storms of crackling static follow Frank across the stage. ”Is that me?” asks Andrew Bray, who stars as the Jewish factory superintendent on trial for the rape and killing of a young employee. “Yes!” call several voices in reply.

As a crew member seeks the problem in the microphone wired to Bray, the investigation gets close to the actor’s crotch. In mock objection, Bray cries, “That’s where I keep my menorah!”

A little levity is needed here, after all. Technical rehearsals can be a grind, full of abrupt starts and stops, long waits and fussing over details. But more significantly, the story that this cast and crew are preparing to tell is a tragic one.

Jennifer Davies and Andrew Bray as Lucille and Leo Frank. Photo: Russell J. Young

Jennifer Davies and Andrew Bray as Lucille and Leo Frank. Photo: Russell J. Young

Parade, which won 1999 Tony Awards for Brown’s score and Uhry’s book, is based on a sad but true story.

In 1913, the strangled body of 13-year-old Mary Phagan was found in the cellar of the Atlanta pencil factory where she had worked. Frank, her boss, was the last person known to see her alive, and became the prime suspect. A Jew, educated in the North at Cornell University, Frank was demonized in the press and convicted despite a lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime. In the North, the case was decried as a travesty of justice. In Georgia, passions ran so hot that after Frank’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, a mob seized him from jail and lynched him.

The case led to a veritable exodus of Jews from Georgia and the formation of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. But it also spurred the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

The history of the murder case and the history of the musical are linked: The pencil factory was owned by Alfred Uhry’s great-uncle.

“Those guys are brilliant writers,” Paul Angelo, director of the Staged! production, says of Uhry and Brown. “There’s a vulnerability to these characters that’s right there in the music. The story is a tragedy — for Mary, for Leo, in a sense for that community. But in the midst of all that, there’s all this beauty. In a sense it’s a story of empowerment for Lucille, Leo’s wife, as she goes through this ordeal. In the middle of that shit field, you plant a rose.”

Rehearsal in the Brunish continues in fits and starts. Often, just as a performer gathers breath for the opening lines of a song, stage manager Corinne Lowenthal calls, “Hold, please,” so that lighting designer Peter West and sound designer Gordon Romei can fine-tune their work.

By the time Salim Sanchez sits center stage for an Act I scene as the pencil plant’s janitor, Jim Conley, his attitude is adjusted. “I’m just going to half-ass it, cause I know I’m gonna get stopped,” he cracks.

Musical director Robert Fishel leans forward from his keyboard, his tone all business. “I need to know very specifically: Which half?”

Sanchez’ jest aside, this is a full-throated production, with an orchestra of nine and a cast of 18, including Portland musical-theater stalwarts such as Elizabeth Klinger and Todd Tschida, as well as several strong-voiced newcomers, some of them teens from the Staged! conservatory program.

Both in its professional productions and its educational programming, Staged regularly has focused on Jason Robert Brown’s work, including Songs for a New World and 13.

Staged! artistic director Chanda Hall had long been interested in Parade, but was waiting for the right time.

“We wanted to do this play when we had the right people in place and could do the story justice. Four or five years ago, we couldn’t have done that.”

In addition to the talent assembled for the stage, led by Bray and Jennifer Davis as Lucille, that means supporting the production with lobby displays, post-show discussions for student groups, and pre-show presentations at 1p.m. on Sundays, including panels on the American justice system and the neuroscience of racism.

And while levity might not be part of any of that, Angelo says he’s taken care to bring out the brighter elements to the story onstage.

“I started with the thought that it all begins in love, as strange as that sounds,” the director says. “Even the people who do evil are doing it out of what they think is love — vengeance against Leo out of love for Mary, for instance.

“We’re trying to say: This kind of injustice does happen. But how do we make sense of it?”

 

 

Lies & misdemeanors: ‘Latina’ and ‘The Last Five Years’

Reviews: Milagro's wild 'Learn To Be Latina' and Center Stage's Jason Robert Brown musical measure the depravity of mendacity

Like politics, the theater relies on lies.

 It’s your lucky day, Macbeth. Grab the ring!

 My name? It’s, um, Ernest.

 Have you ever heard of the word mendacity?

 Honest, Jamie and Edmund, I’m totally off the morphine.

 I’m pretty sure Desdemona gave your handkerchief to Cassio.

Without lies, where’s the conflict? Without conflict, where’s the drama – or the comedy?

There are lies, damned lies, and statistics, as Mark Twain famously quoted Benjamin Disraeli on the three degrees of falsehood, although no one’s been able to nail down whether Disraeli ever actually said it or not, suggesting the distinct possibility that Twain lied about lying, or at least misspoke the truth. Wheels within wheels, and that’s how stories get spun.

Two shows new to Portland stages – Enrique Urueta’s comedy Learn To Be Latina, at Milagro Theatre, and Jason Robert Brown’s two-person musical The Last Five Years, at Portland Center Stage – get their knickers in a twist over some great big whoppers. One wallows in the lie of the vow of eternal love, keeping things close and personal. The other mucks around in the mendacity of marketing, sprawling satirically all over the cultural map. Let’s sprawl first.

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 It’s not easy being brown. Especially if you’re the wrong kind of brown. But then, as the young singer Hanán discovers in Urueta’s satirical comedy Learn To Be Latina, you can always lie about it. Well, why not? Doesn’t everyone? 

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"13" and feeling it, on the chorus line. Photo: Staged! Musical Theatre

A funny thing happened on the way to the theater over the weekend. I couldn’t figure out what age I was in.

I don’t mean age as in Paleozoic or Golden or Romantic. I mean age as in 13 or 35 or 64.

The theater isn’t as audience-straitjacketed as television, which jumps through marketing hoops in which one 24-year-old viewer is worth two 48-year-olds or twelve 72-year-olds, but it does have its chronological categories – or silos, if you prefer. Theatrically speaking, small-r romance is delivered obsessively or nostalgically, depending on the target audience, and beyond the occasional no-neck monster down Big Daddy way, children pretty much don’t exist.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my weekend of theatergoing reflected a culture in which, against every effort of the demographic packaging machine, various age groups actually meet and mingle. Or at least, think about what it might be like to be somewhere else along the timeline of life.

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