Cedar Rapids – As an avid theatergoer, I really appreciate it when companies produce the lesser known shows. I’ve seen many, many productions of Sound of Music. It’s lovely and enjoyable and all that. But give me something new or at least something old that isn’t produced much. That’s what gets my juices flowing. Fortunately, we have a musical theatre company in Cedar Rapids dedicated to just that. Part of Revival Theatre’s mission is bringing to stage the “rare gems,” which they describe as “shows that have an incredible score and script, but had a short-lived life in New York or Chicago.” This philosophy is what lead to a fantastic concert production of Parade (book by Alfred Uhry and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown) last night at the Scottish Rite Temple.
Parade tells the story of Leo Frank (Joe Wetrich), a Jewish man living in Georgia in 1913, with his wife, Lucille (Loralee Songer). He is very much a fish out of water in this Southern state, and he longs to return to Brooklyn, New York. Leo’s life takes a tragic turn when he is arrested for the murder of Mary (Erin Gram), a teenage girl who works at the pencil factory he manages.
A concert production differs from a full production in that there is no set, oftentimes no blocking, and little lighting effects. The focus is usually on the music, hence the term concert production. However, this is not your average concert production. While there is no set, the costumes (design by April Bonasera) are fully realized and the lighting is masterfully used to create a powerful show. The action is done well – this isn’t actors standing at mics singing. They move through the scenes and we are treated to the full story. Some of the best of director Brian Glick’s work can be seen in the trial scene featuring a parade of witnesses. The very carefully orchestrated movement of the factory girls, in particular, stood out and added much pathos to the scene. I do not think I can praise Scott Olinger’s lighting design enough. A full range of colors expanded on the emotions of the characters in various scenes. I particularly loved how the lighting was often used to emphasize the end of a scene, an exclamation point that in concert with the music often resulted in a gasp from the audience. There was one technical issue – the sound. There were a few times when mics were not on and twice a massive feedback surge hurt the performance. Hopefully, that will be fixed in future performances.
All of the technical wizardry in the world will not matter if the actors falter. Fortunately, this cast is top notch. Wetrich created a nebbishly relateable Leo Frank. He is not a perfect man by any means, but one we root for and understand. Wetrich is masterful at modulating the power of his voice to match the emotion of the moment. This is particularly wonderful in “All the Wasted Time,” a touchingly sad love song sung by Leo and Lucille. Songer’s Lucille is also a well developed character, a strong woman who fights for the man she loves even as she struggles at times to understand their love. In fact, their journey of discovering their love for one another is perhaps one of the most affecting storylines in the musical and Wetrich and Songer deliver true emotional performances in service to it.
The supporting actors are excellent as well. Michael Penick opens the show with the powerful song, “The Old Red Hills of Home,” which features the entire cast, including the excellent chorus, which is seated behind the main action. (My companion for the evening noted that he forgot they were there, which is a complement as they added their voices when necessary but never took away from the main action on the stage.) Later, Penick portrays the corrupt district attorney who frames Frank for the murder. An excellent actor, Penick is also gifted with a powerfully sonorous voice that fills the entire auditorium. Also good were Gram as Mary and Brennan Urbi as Frankie Epps, the boy smitten with her. They were delightfully flirtatious in “The Picture Show,” showcasing the innocence of youth, which made the tragedy of Mary’s murder hit home that much harder.
The opening number of the second act, “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin'” was a showstopper. Shawndell Young and Alicia Strong were simply fantastic in this reflection on whether the murder of a young black girl would have elicited the same reaction from the town. (Spoiler alert: it wouldn’t.) In a world where there remains a desperate need for the Black Lives Matter movement, this song is particularly timely and affecting.
There were many other excellent performances – Steve Rezbeck as Governor Slaton and Dyanna Davidson in the dual role of the Governor’s wife and Mary’s mother to name just two – and in fact I can’t think of a single performance that wasn’t simply perfect. If you’re reading this review thinking, “Huh, I’ve never even heard of Parade…”, I have one thing to say: Get your tickets. You won’t regret it. This is a great show and needs a wider audience.
Revival’s Parade in Concert delivers engaging and diverse music combined with spectacular performances. There are only two more performances – tonight and tomorrow. Get tickets here.