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REVIEW: Parade - La Habra Theater Guild

"... we mistakenly try to comfort ourselves with the thought that love conquers all."


La Habra High School Theater Guild presents their 68th theatrical production, “Parade,” playing at the Historical Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton, CA November 9th through the 19th. Performances remaining are this Thursday evening at 7:30pm, Saturday the 18th at 1:30 and 7:30pm, and the final curtain Sunday the 19th at 1:30pm. Written by Alfred Uhry, the book inspired the musical “Parade,” the true story of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn Jew who moved to Atlanta, Georgia with his wife to take up the post of superintendent at a pencil factory.

The musical dramatizes the 1913 trial of Leo Frank (Zach Fogel), who was accused and convicted of raping and murdering one of his workers, a thirteen-year-old employee named Mary Phagan (Veronica McFarlane). The trial, sensationalized by the media, aroused anti-Semitic tensions in the state of Georgia. When Frank's death sentence was commuted to life in prison by the departing Georgia Governor, John M. Slaton, Leo Frank was transferred to another prison where a lynch mob seized and kidnapped him. Frank was taken to Phagan's hometown of Marietta, Georgia, and he was hanged from an oak tree. The events surrounding the investigation and trial led to two groups emerging: the revival of the defunct KKK and the birth of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

From its haunting opening number, ‘The Old Red Hills of Home,’ the play pits the soaring nature of the music against the harsh reality of the narrative. Director Brian Johnson's fluid staging recognizes the piece's savvy cocktail of musical manipulation and weighty subject matter, giving us a cacophonic jolt in the final minutes lest we mistakenly try to comfort ourselves with the thought that love conquers all.

The evening's first act is devoted almost entirely to the mechanics of framing Frank and the agitating of popular sentiment against him as a social outsider. From the beginning, both Uhry's book and Jason Robert Brown’s lyrics bluntly set up Frank's status as an immigrant, a Jewish alien with references to his disdain for Southern cooking and his preference, as one of the song lyrics puts it, to say ''shalom'' instead of ''howdy.'' When Mary Phagan, the teen-age worker in the National Pencil Factory is found murdered in the factory's basement, the police immediately fix an accusatory gaze on the night watchman, Newt Lee (Steven Parker), who discovered the body, but then decided the killer had to be the out of place Mr. Frank.

Thus begins a streamlined railroading process of the sort that has since become common fodder for the movie industry. The expediency of pinning the crime on Leo is established through a series of scenes in which blatantly corrupt politicians say things like: ''You got a lousy conviction record, Hughie. How long you think they're going to keep you in office if you let this one off the hook?''

The citizens of Atlanta grow ever louder in their cries for vengeance, goaded by a nefarious newspaper publisher, Tom Watson (Davess Verdugo), who is given to statements like ''Jesus was not a Jew.'' An ambitious prosecuting attorney, the above-mentioned Hugh Dorsey (Bryan Connolly), is seen cutting a deal with a black factory janitor with a prison record named Jim Conley, who brings some flair and fire to the proceedings to testify against Frank.

Yet even as the ensemble helps to create tidal waves of crowds, you never seem to escape an overriding feeling of disdain, a chilly indignation. Nor is Leo ever allowed to doubt himself, to wonder if he had somehow perhaps gone mad that day. The shy Lucille (Mercy Thornton) is also clearly tortured by the public scrutiny of herself as well as her husband, but she also never seems to question if her husband might indeed be guilty as she sings passionately to a reporter: ''He is a decent man! He is an honest man!''

She nonetheless creates a vital and affecting portrait of a sheltered woman thrust out into a harsh and dangerous world. Made up and dressed to look a bit like Eleanor Roosevelt, the actress's accent and vocal inflections bespeak both a heritage of Southern Jewish gentility and a fluttery primness that never quite conceals a yearning for a more fully lived life. In the second act, as Lucille convinces Georgia's Governor, John M. Slaton (Gabriel Liron), to reopen her husband's case, there is something infinitely touching about the valiant hope that Ms. Thornton projects in her character.

The surprise fantasy trial scene in which the staid and bespectacled Leo bursts into the "Come Up to My Office" song and dance routine is a brilliant jazzy depiction of the accused murderer’s supposed depravities. Supported by three factory girls (Justine Sombilon, Lizzy Geringer and Michaela Varvis) who gives similar testimony against him for sexual impropriety, the fantasy vignette is an entertaining interlude that not only deflects but escalates the tension. It’s also one that will be surely remembered.

A strong highlight of the first act’s trial-in-music was delivered by Miles Henry as Jim Conley, the pencil factory’s cleaning supervisor, with “That’s What He Said,” a driving, mocking piece of increasingly fanciful “testimony” backed by the entire cast and chorus that almost tore the roof off the Plummer Auditorium. Mr. Henry also excels later in the second act with the blues-inspired “Feel the Rain Fall” in which Jim Conley, while serving on a chain gang, recants his testimony for the Governor of Georgia.

In addition to basic moral indignation, audiences leaving the theater will come away with an overall sense of the music. There are a remarkable number of songs which will strongly resonate in heart and memory. Several immediately come to mind: Leo's first solo "How Can I Call This Home?" Lucille's "Do It Alone," Leo and Lucille's heart-wrenching duet, "All the Wasted Time," and Mrs. Phagan (Isabella Wouters) number, "My Child Will Forgive Me." These songs are eloquent and mood-appropriate. The more smartly syncopated and highly choreographed ones - "Big News," “Real Big News,” “The Hammer of Justice,” “The Dream of Atlanta,” captured not only realistic southern rationale but also the marvelous talents of the La Habra High School Theater Guild.

With Greg Haake conducting the seven-piece orchestra and a selected ensemble of 31 singers and dancers apart from the cast, the actors presented their songs and scenes with a powerful musical background to drive the story.

Costumed by Tana Carmichael and choreographed by Annie Lavin, this award-winning musical is one not to be missed! As Director Brian Johnson so eloquently puts it, “…This is a true story of Right Now! Look around you and see more than just the faint echoes of 1913, but a people and a nation that in many ways has refused to change.”

Tix: http://lhhsguild.com/

Chris Daniels National Youth Arts Reviewer

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 © 2020 by KDaniels 

Chris Daniels, Arts Reviewer

The Show Report