It is always a privilege to support aspiring young artists and the wonderful organizations and professionals who provide them with training and opportunities to explore and experience the performing arts. As such, I was pleased to be invited to attend Act Two @ Levine’s opening night of Parade, presented in the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage on Friday, January 31, 2014.
Parade, with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, is based on the misguided and tragic trial of Leo Frank, a Jewish-American factory superintendent from Georgia, whose murder conviction and lynching in 1915 drew attention to both the anti-Semitism and the racial prejudice that permeated his trial. The production is the first of three in the second season of Act Two @ Levine’s innovative Pre-Professional Program, one that provides professional mentoring, training in both performance and the back-stage technical aspects of theatre, and the opportunity to perform on the professional stages of area theatres including the Kodod Cradle at Arena Stage and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
As Act Two @ Levine’s Music Theater Department Chair and Parade’s director Kevin Kuchar stated in the Director’s Note of the performance program, the Pre-Professional program is focused on “process over product,” and so it was not surprising that the opening night performance of Parade included both wonderful moments and opportunities for improvement. The point is that that a focus on process allows and encourages directors, performing artists, and crew to examine choices and to adjust every aspect of a performance not only during training and in rehearsal, but up to and including the final curtain call of its very last performance. The best artists in the business make mistakes, and they make many of them. They just never stop working to become better, and so it will be with this production of Parade.
Because Act Two is a training program, its shows tend to be cast with more actors and singers than are actually necessary for a performance, and are frequently double cast in order to give student actors opportunities to perform multiple roles or to share lead roles. Of the many wonderful performances on opening night, some in particular were exceptional. Tyler Lazzari was a stand-out in the role of Jim Conley, a black factory worker who was also a suspect in the murder, and one who testified against Leo Frank in trial. A triple-threat performer who exudes personality, energy, and talent, he acted, sang, and danced his way through this performance like a star.
Amanda Silverstein, who played Leo Frank’s wife Lucille, was strong vocally, especially in the powerful “You Don’t Know This Man” and showed notable depth and versatility as an actor as she convincingly expressed the emotions of a wife trapped in a seemingly mismatched and loveless marriage growing to become her husband’s prime source of love, support, and hope during the two years of his incarceration, trial, and eventual lynching.
Eitan Mazia rose to the demands of his role playing Leo Frank, with exceptional characterizations, a riveting presence and solid vocals in his renditions of “How Can I Call This Home?” and “Leo’s Statement: It’s Hard to Speak My Heart.”
Heather Strauss was convincing in her portrayal of the sweet murder victim, Mary Phagan.
Queen Griffin (Minnie McKnight), Liam Allen (Riley), and Faith Porter (Angela) were consistently spot on in their vocals and really lit up the stage with their energy. Also turning in great performances were Noah Kieserman (Frankie Epps), David Newman (Hugh Dorsey), and Jhonny Maldonado in the roles of Young Soldier and Watson.
Parade was well supported by Music Director Keith Tittermary (keyboards), and musicians Steve Brinegar (French Horn), Manny Arciniega (Drums), Ken Caputo (Clarinet), and Erin Snedecor (Cello). Costuming choices by Director Kuchar were stunning, with townspeople dressed in proper white Victorian outfits that provided stark contrast to others who dressed in dramatic dark colors that added to the sense of crazed, sensational, and prejudicial chaos that overtook Atlanta during this period. Scott Selman’s Sound and Lighting were well-executed and designed with simplicity that added to the stark reality and horror of both the murder of a young child and the resulting trial and lynching that followed. The set was minimalist, consisting primarily of a wheeled modular structure that perfectly matched the walls of the Kogod Cradle, that served to imply, at various times, Leo’s jail cell, a courtroom, and other Atlanta locations.
It is truly wonderful to see the collaboration between professional theatres and arts education organizations that is happening in the DC area. Both Arena Stage and Woolly Mammoth are to be congratulated for their support of aspiring young artists by giving them the opportunity to experience the thrill of performing on a professional stage, and by supporting their development in workshops and master classes. In so doing they are encouraging a whole generation of young people who will become their future artists, directors, crew, audience members, and donors. This is a very, very good thing.
Parade played from January 30-February 2, 2014 at Act Two @ Levine performing in The Kogod Cradle at at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theatre – 1101 6th Street, SW, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets to future Act Two @ Levine Pre-Professional Program performances of Urinetown and Spamalot here.