A breathtakingly stunning and hauntingly dramatic musical takes to the stage as Kensington Arts Theatre launches their fall season. Directed by Craig Pettinati with Musical Direction by David Rohde, Parade is a thrilling dramatic musical, with Tony Award-winning music and lyrics written by Jason Robert Brown, and book by Alfred Uhry, that tells the true tale of a man wrongfully accused of murder in America’s sordid southern past. This pivotal musical keeps you on the edge of our seat with anticipation and is stirring; teeming with emotions and powerful voices that will shock you to the core from the pristine and polished beginning to the dramatic and mind-blowing end. Truly a musical gem, this production is stellar with incredible voices and thrilling emotions constructed deep into these finely tuned and sharply honed characters.
Scenic Designer Matt Karner, working in tandem with Lighting Designer Ben Levine, creates brilliant visual moments on the stage, particularly with the way that Director Craig Pettinati blocks the actors. Karner’s design is simple; two connecting turrets with a bridge drawn between and a blank open space beneath. A faded Old Glory backdrop hangs behind the scene with an American flag drawn over one column and a Confederate flag draped over the other. Levine’s lighting keeps actors in sharp focus during more emotionally intense moments and the overall simplistic approach to this design allows the performers to really hone in on telling the story of the musical rather than being caught up in the notion of staging a spectacle.
Pettinati creates a believability among the cast that draws the attention to the time period of the show. Dialect coaches Eric Jones and Emily Zickler imbue the cast with the authentic sounds of the slower Georgian tongue; some more elongated and drawn than others. Jones and Zickler draw the distinction between the Georgians and the lone Jewish man from Brooklyn (New York) with a sharply cut line; the speech mannerisms and sounds carrying through into everyone’s songs. This is a rare technique that is often glossed over in musicals, the ability to carry the carefully crafted accent of the character into the actor’s singing voice and it is something at which the entire cast succeeds.
Musical Director David Rohde creates incredible sounds from the ensemble as well as the featured soloists in this production. The sheer magnitude of the sound they formulate when singing company numbers like “The Old Red Hills of Home” and “Real Big News” is superb – a fulfilling swell of emotions that surge forth to greet the audience’s ear and deliver the raw exposed nerves of this little town and how shook up they are because of what’s happening.
Two cutting and distinguishing voices that the audience is presented with straight away are the Young Soldier (Harrison Smith) and the Old Soldier (Michael Nansel) when they open the show with a stirring number, “Prologue: The Old Red Hills of Home.” Smith’s sweet youthful voice juxtaposes perfectly against Nansel’s rich seasoned baritone blends to make this a truly haunting and beautiful way to start the show.
Smith later appears as young Frankie Epps, suitor to Mary Phagan (Catherine Callahan) with whom he shares a delightfully flirtatious, albeit innocent, duet, “The Picture Show.” Smith’s character possesses a rich depth, however, as witnessed during “There is a Fountain/It Don’t Make Sense” a harrowing song which is fully loaded with a heavy woeful sorrow and fierce inconceivable anger. Smith infuses these emotions flawless into the song without compromising the vocal integrity of the number, his crystalline voice echoing with a pure resonance that sends shivers up the spine when he collapses to the ground in this number. A stunning performance all round, this talented young actor gives a tremendous rendition of this versatile character.
Nansel, appearing later as Mayor Hugh Dorsey, portrays a wretched sleazy character that makes your skin crawl. His barking belt during “Something Ain’t Right” is the epitome of a sinister snake that strikes from the shadows like a viper on a mission. Softening the caustic nature of his character, Nansel gives a stellar rendition of “Twenty Miles from Marietta,” that delivers a swift thrust of justice to the ears of the audience.
The most versatile performer in the show is Ian Coleman, taking on three different characters with major songs and making them uniquely distinguished from one another. Coleman starts the show as Newt Lee, the night watchman — giving a spine-tingling rendition of “I Am Trying to Remember,” filling this number with the essence of an eerie soul creeping out the truth from amidst the shrouds of mystery that surround the murder. He later takes on the role of Jim, a much more flavorful and bumptious character that intends to make his version of the truth known. Coleman’s soulful voice duets well with Eben Logan, playing Minnie/Angela, during “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’.” Logan’s voice is exceptional, particularly when she belts out “Minnie’s Testimony” and lets her presence be felt upon the stage.
Carrying the principle lead roles of the show are Emily Zickler and Bobby Libby as Lucille and Leo Frank. The pair have a sensational chemistry together, even if it is strained at the beginning of the show— appropriate given the nature of their relationship. The duets they share, “This Is Not Over Yet” and “All the Wasted Time” are sublime. Their voices create perfect harmonies and are brimming with authentic emotions that really drive the message of the story home to the audience. Zickler as the strong wife figure really nails her convictions to the feet of her character and delivers unwavering confidence every time she is on the stage, particularly during “You Don’t Know This Man.” Her voice is pristine; sweet yet powerful and laced with visceral feelings that she is unabashedly unafraid to share.
Libby crafts a tremendous presence upon the stage. His meager initial existence is merely another layer of this finely-constructed character; creating a richly fulfilling man on this journey throughout the show. His voice is filled with determination and forceful optimism during “This Is Not Over Yet,” when he belts out his beliefs from the bottom of his being. Proving himself to be a versatile performer, Libby gives a rather intriguing jazzy rendition of “Come Up To My Office,” the complete opposite of the nervous character he has constructed to that point in the show. His performance of “It’s Hard To Speak My Heart” presents the audience with a vulnerable exposed man. Libby delivers a magnificent performance.
Parade is dark and hauntingly beautiful and the efforts of all involved are well worth commending. The best way to do so is to go and see this magnificent production of Parade at Kensington Arts Theatre before it closes.
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission.
Parade plays through November 16, 2013 at Kensington Arts Theatre at Kensington Town Hall – 3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (206) 888-6642, or purchase them online.